It’s good to be king — or, alternatively, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.
That was the reason why former longtime Speaker Michael Madigan desperately wanted to retain his post, and it didn’t take long for his successor to figure it out.
Chicago-area state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch this week released a revised set of rules Madigan used to control the legislative process in Springfield. Surprise, surprise — the revised Welch rules aren’t much different than the Madigan rules.
Give Welch credit though. He ran a great misdirection play — proposing term limits for House legislative leaders. The nice contrast to Madigan’s decadeslong tenure drew the lion’s share of media attention.
Welch proposed to serve a maximum of 10 years in the speaker’s post. So starting now, the clock is ticking on his tenure.
How’s that for an Illinois-style overnight change for the better?
Welch threw out a couple more faux reforms. He said bills will in the future be assigned to their relevant committees, where those opposed by the majority are first ignored and then killed.
That’s billed as an improvement over the previous policy of assigning bills to the House Rules Committee, where those opposed by the majority are first ignored and then killed.
Another proposed change is pandemic-related, allowing remote committee meetings. That will permit House members to screw up the state from a healthy distance as opposed to having to take a personal risk in order to further sicken the body politic.
The reaffirmation of the status quo prompted a spokeswoman for GOP House Leader Jim Durkin to complain that Welch, like Madigan before him, “retains centralized control over every bill, amendment or motion.”
Some may have been surprised by the the new speaker’s embrace of Madigan’s style. But those who parsed the words of Welch’s recent promise to ease up on autocracy and embrace more democracy could not have been.
In mid-January, Welch said he wanted to “examine the rules and possibly make changes, possibly make a lot of changes.”
The word “possibly” was obviously not a firm commitment. So for Illinois, real rules reform remains the impossible dream.
There is, however, a method to the Democrats’ madness here, and it goes to the sometimes brutal nature of the exercise of political power.
The majority party traditionally writes rules that allow its power brokers to do what they want when they want. The rules also are written to restrict the minority party from doing the same.
The solution to the GOP’s super-minority status is to become the majority party by winning elections. Then its members can exercise the same tyrannical power over the Democrats that they contend the Democrats now exercise over them.
Short of that, all the GOP can do is complain about the Democrats’ high-handed control of the legislative process.
There is, however, an issue here. It wasn’t just Republicans who chafed under Madigan’s rigid control of the legislative process. He made sure plenty of Democratic proposals never saw the light of day, and it was that frustration on the part of rank-and-file House Democrats that contributed to the end of Madigan’s reign as speaker.
So how much control will Welch exercise over his rabidly liberal House caucus? He retains power to name committee chairmen, substitute members of committees to ensure votes turn out as he wishes, and call votes on legislation — or not — when he thinks the time is right.
Will Welch let his charges run free, something Madigan would never allow? Or will he exercise the whip hand even if some Democrats will resent — and remember — the hardball approach?
Madigan was a singular character whom Welch will never replicate. Whether and how much he’ll try to do so will have a dramatic impact on the state’s future.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-351-5369.