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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Next reforms should take on term limits for legislative leaders

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

All of the suggestions for reforming the contemptible Illinois legislature won't go anywhere unless we strip its two leaders of their iron grip on how their minions vote.

Therefore, as my first suggestions for amendments to the Illinois Constitution, I propose limiting the length that any legislator can serve as House speaker or Senate president to one or two terms. How else to end the lock that House Speaker Michael Madigan (above right) and Senate President John Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats, have on both chambers so that the legislative bodies can function as they should -- true representatives of the people?

The legislature can be called a lot of things (bumbling, cowardly, selfish, sheepish, insane), but it's also a diarchy. Diarchy: (n) a government controlled by two diarchs (bosses). In most diarchies, the diarchs hold their position for life and pass the responsibilities and power of the position to their children or other family members when they die.

In the Illinois legislature, the diarchs are Madigan and Cullerton -- two familial names in Chicago politics -- without whose approval nothing will move through the otherwise constipated, ethically challenged legislature. Because they are elected from two safe districts in Chicago and because they rule with papal-like ex cathedra ("from the chair") authority, the rest of us are virtually disenfranchised.

Madigan is the longer-serving, Cullerton having replaced Emil Jones, the former enabler of the disgraced former governor, Rod Blagojevich. Madigan and Cullerton control their chambers by sitting on a pot of campaign funds to be doled out to their ever-grateful toadies. Of course, limiting the speakership or presidency to one or two terms doesn't mean that the campaign contributions from those seeking favor won't stop flowing into the hands of whoever succeeds them.

So, we'll need another amendment: No Illinois legislator may distribute campaign money to any other member of the House or Senate. Sure, there are other ways to distribute campaign money to other servile party members and requiring loyalty in return. But at least it will keep the direct ladling of political funds out of the governmental process.

There are other possible amendments that citizens can initiate. High on my list would be the restoration of the "cumulative voting" system for electing lawmakers. Years ago, as a citizen activist, Gov. Pat Quinn was instrumental in eliminating this system, which turned out to be one of the biggest anti-reform moves in decades.

Under the system, each legislative district sent three representatives to the House. Typically, Democrats and Republicans would each put up two candidates in each district, and voters were given three votes to divide among them. It produced a cohesive minority of some of the most independent, honest and competent legislators in the state's history. Quinn and his fellow utopians accomplished what the most die-hard party regulars couldn't have done on their own. They concentrated political power in the hands of a smaller clique of party regulars, while producing an assembly of conformist lawmakers.

Voters also could initiate an amendment limiting the terms of all lawmakers, not just the leadership. Term limits aren't my favorite cause; I see good reasons for having experienced legislators. Yet, turning over the entire membership regularly isn't a bad idea, considering the manner in which the experienced hands have been conducting themselves.

This shouldn't exhaust the number of ideas for amending the constitution's Article IV, which sets out how the legislature does business. I'm putting these forward because after last week's column suggesting that voters use the citizen initiative process to shake up the legislature, a number of readers asked for specific suggestions. Other folks may have more or better ideas, and I hope to hear from them.

As I said last week, it takes about 270,000 registered voters' signatures to place an amendment on the ballot in the 2010 general election. It's not too soon to begin weighing the ideas and coalescing around the best ones. I can serve as a conduit for the ideas and for those who are interested in getting a movement started.

But I'm not an organizer. It's up to those with the moxie and the money to get this effort under way. I know there is interest out there, and we need to start somewhere. The Madigans, Cullertons and the rest have signaled that we don't matter; they need a reminder that we do.


Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with you on the desirability of limiting the tenure of legislative leaders and ending their strangehold on state government. However, you need to address the fact that there is a difficult legal hurdle to overcome in attempting to amend the legislative article of the Illinois Constitution by the petition and referendum process.

Any proposal is required to relate to the "structure and procedure" of the legislature. When challenged, the 1980 amendment to reduce the size of the Illinois House and to create single member districts was deemed by the Illinois Supreme Court to satisfy this requirement. But other measures have failed the test, and additional possible reform efforts have been deterred by uncertainty as to whether they would meet the "structure and procedure" requirement.

An Illinois Supreme Court, many of whose members have been elected with Mike Madigan's poltical muscle and fund-raising prowess, can be counted on to take a very strict view of the "structure and procedure" standard and to block a reform proposition that doesn't meet it.

Careful thought needs to be given to crafting reform measures that are most likely to overcome this "structure and procedure" restriction.

Dennis Byrne... said...

You are absolutely correct. Any reform effort should be cognizant of all the hurdles that party regulars will throw in its path. "Structure and procedure," the language the constitution uses to describe how the legislature can by changed by citizen-initiated amendment, by a layman's definition would seem to have a broad definition. But the politicized state supreme court would be a real problem. Certainly term limits on the leadership or all members would fall under the structure and procedure test, but you never know with this court.

Cal Skinner said...

I believe the only way such an amendment will get traction is if Pat Quinn gets angry enough at Madigan and Cullerton.

Anonymous said...

I was overjoyed to read Dennis Byrne's article today voicing the very frustrations I feel every time I contact my legislative delegation to Springfield.

But the Supreme Court and Constitution hurdles have muddied the waters. Madigan has surely covered his tracks.

I am deflated.

Anonymous said...

I think you missed it on the term limits for legislative leaders. To my knowledge, John Cullerton has been President of the Senate for about 6 months. So I'm not sure what a one or two term limit (4 to 8 yrs) would accomplish in his case. Also, I'm pretty sure these leadership positions are voted on by each chamber of the legislature every 2 years, so there are term limits already. One of your gripes appears to be that Madigan and Cullerton are "two familial names in Chicago politics." I don't get what family names have to do with it. Don't know about Madigan; I think Cullerton was born and raised in DuPage County. He moved to Chicago to be a public defender. I guess that makes him a bad guy.

If you want to change the structure of the legislature -- how about a unicameral legislature, with just one chamber. Having a House and Senate is an obsolete structure given the 1 person - 1 vote requirement imposed by U.S. Supreme Court. A one chamger legislature would certainly run more efficiently. I think Nebraska does it that way.

Cal Skinner said...

Anon above would be surprised to learn that legislation can shoot through one legislative body, but be shot down because of a fatal flaw in the other.

Think of it as a check and balance, which, most assuredly, Illinois needs more of.

Just thing what would be going on if U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was not around.