With Michael Madigan out as speaker of the state House, the time is finally ripe for reform.
After 50 years in the Illinois House of Representatives, Representative Michael Madigan, long thought to be untouchable, has been replaced as the body’s speaker. With his historic 36-year reign in that position now over, how can Illinoisans dismantle the system that has made their state government synonymous with corruption?
Key to the task will be reconfiguring the machine, rather than just its operators. But to do that, we must first understand how things went so very wrong in Madigan’s Illinois.
The public gained a window into Madigan’s system of influence-peddling and cronyism last year, when his associates and former Commonwealth Edison executives were charged by the Department of Justice in connection with a $1.3 million bribery scheme. In exchange for giving a ComEd board position and no-work jobs to Madigan allies, the utility had gained access to the speaker and secured his support for its preferred electricity rates and other legislation it wanted passed. ComEd ultimately admitted all this and accepted a $200 million fine as part of a deferred-prosecution agreement.
The ComEd prosecution was only the most recent scandal to hit an Illinois political culture that has over the decades become synonymous with corruption. From 1983 to 2018, Illinois saw an average of one public official a week convicted on a federal corruption charge, the highest per capita average among the ten most populous states.
The vast patronage system over which Madigan presided was described by the Chicago Tribune as “the lifeblood of [his] political organization.” Jobs or favors often paid for by taxpayers — such as positions with Metra or admission to the University of Illinois — were exchanged for campaign work, political loyalty, and donations. The speaker’s decades-long sway over Illinois’s legislative process and his control over campaign funds as the head of the Democratic Party of Illinois made his support crucial to getting bills passed, stopping them from being passed, or winning election as a Democrat in what remains a deep-blue state.
The speaker used this power not only to reward his allies and punish his opponents, but also to benefit his law firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, which has grown to dominate property-tax appeals in Cook County, home to Chicago and thus the state’s most populous, politically important jurisdiction. Madigan’s firm works to reduce the assessed value of his clients’ property, saving them millions. From 2010 to 2018, this job was made easier by the fact that a hand-picked Madigan ally was in charge of property valuations.
Madigan also enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with public-sector unions, changing pension and labor laws at their behest in exchange for donations to Democratic Party campaign funds and the provision of union volunteers for campaign work. During the past 26 years, government-worker unions have given over $10 million to campaign funds controlled by the former speaker. While unions obtained legislation that expanded collective-bargaining rights and awarded pension sweeteners, Illinois taxpayers saw the state’s credit rating crater over the past four decades as its unfunded-pension liability increased 753 percent. That liability now takes up more than a quarter of the state general-funds budget. Spending on pensions has grown by more than 500 percent since 2000 as spending on basics such as child-protection services, aid to state universities, and public safety has fallen by about one-third.
None of that fiscal wreckage seemed to move other state politicians to get rid of Madigan. The rebellion came only after the ComEd scandal exposed Madigan’s corruption for all to see. Madigan was toxic, and 19 of his Democratic colleagues in the House eventually demanded a new speaker. They got one on January 13, but they — and the state — aren’t out of the woods just yet. Madigan’s replacement, Emanuel “Chris” Welch, will need to reverse decades of dysfunction and clean up the culture of influence-peddling and self-dealing in Springfield. If he can’t, the state will continue to suffer from higher taxes and debt, crumbling social services, and a tax base shrinking as fed-up residents move elsewhere.
A crucial first step toward that goal would be procedural reforms to the way the House conducts its business that limit the power of the speaker. Ten-year term limits for speaker and minority leader would be a start and would mirror the limits in the Illinois Senate. Stripping the speaker of the sole power to appoint committee chairs — and dole out the $10,000 stipends that come with them — would also curb his ability to enforce loyalty among members.
Beyond that, changes to the Rules Committee, which assigns legislation to substantive committees, will be key. The Committee is known as the place bills go to die. The Committee’s majority members and chair currently are all appointed by the speaker, and it is nearly impossible for a sponsoring member to get his or her bill heard by a substantive committee without the support of a majority of Committee members. Many ethics bills, including popular measures such as restrictions on lobbying by General Assembly members, languished in the Rules Committee unheard from 2019 until past the close of the lame-duck legislative session on the day Welch replaced Madigan. Allowing members to discharge bills more easily from Rules would prevent a speaker from leaning on the committee to quash bills he or she doesn’t like.
Once the legislative process is improved, the House should break with Springfield’s corrupt past by passing key ethics reforms. Lawmakers’ statements of economic interest — derisively called “none sheets” in reference to their weak disclosure requirements — should require a more detailed accounting of members’ financial and business interests to show constituents potential ethical conflicts. Bans on state lawmakers lobbying other governmental bodies, as well as the imposition of a meaningful waiting period before a lawmaker can start lobbying work after leaving office, would also help. And giving the legislative inspector general the authority to initiate ethics investigations and publish reports of founded complaints against lawmakers would improve oversight and accountability.
Beyond ethics reform, effective pension reform is necessary to address the debt crisis that is in part the result of politicians’ sitting across the negotiating table from the union officials who fill their campaigns’ coffers and volunteer lists. This would protect many Illinoisans, from those reliant on social services to public employees who deserve retirement security to taxpayers who can’t afford to pay more and more for unsustainable government spending.
As welcome as Madigan’s ouster is, it won’t solve corruption in Illinois. To do that, the power that one person can accumulate in Springfield must be limited and the state’s representational government must be rebuilt. For the first time in nearly four decades, state lawmakers have an opportunity to fix the state’s grave problems and put an end to the cycle of tax hikes, debt, and corruption. They should take it.