Listen to this article

Talk is cheap when it comes to putting rules in place that would limit legislators’ extra-curricular activities.

Legislators were in Springfield last week for the first of two three-day sessions that were supposed to be devoted to important issues. Instead, they found themselves in the midst of a chaotic atmosphere caused by the arrest on bribery charges of one of their colleagues, recently resigned Chicago state Rep. Luis Arroyo.

House and Senate Democrats and Republicans tried to go about their work. But — with another in a series of federal corruption investigations in the news — they couldn’t resist posing to impress the folks back home.

That’s why cries for ethics reform suddenly filled the air. Even Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, never known heretofore as an ethics zealot, suddenly was laying the groundwork for passage of restrictions ostensibly designed to keep his legislative colleagues from crossing boundaries and drawing the attention of law enforcement.

Madigan indicated he’ll convene “stakeholders and experts” to examine the state’s ethics and lobbying laws. At the same time, he could offer no explanation for why legislators are permitted to supplement their incomes by working as lobbyists.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. That’s the type of thing that should be addressed by this group that we’re going to convene,” Madigan said.

It’s hard to imagine that Madigan truthfully answered that question. If he really doesn’t know the answer, he’s the only politician in Illinois who doesn’t.

The reason legislators are allowed to work as lobbyists is because legislators want to pad their income by working as lobbyists and, so far, have refused to pass any rules that say they can’t.

That’s the way it is with most rules that would restrict the legislators’ ability to feather their own nests. They may pass rules that purport to restrict questionable activities, but those rules often contain gigantic loopholes designed to maintain business as usual.

Here’s a blatant example recently brought to public attention by WCIA-TV’s Mark Maxwell.

He reported about former Alton state Sen. Bill Haine’s appointment by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to serve on the State Board of Elections. The law requires Haine, as a condition of his appointment, to surrender control of his campaign fund containing $286,786.

Here’s how Haine complied with the law. He changed the name of his campaign fund to the Illinois Metro East Improvement Committee and transferred control of it to his wife.

On paper, control has changed. In reality, nothing has changed.

Here’s another example.

It’s the job of Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope to investigate and report on alleged misconduct by members of the House and Senate. Her work is overseen by a six-member ethics commission made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats.

As a condition of opening an investigation or issuing a subpoena, Pope needs advance approval of the ethics commission. The commission is made up of an even number of Republicans and Democrats, so each party can block the other. Further, members of the ethics commission are not always so ethical.

One current member is state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat.

Link denied it, but he was identified this week as the state senator who was wearing a wire for the FBI in its bribery investigation of Rep. Arroyo.

Why was a member of the Senate — presumably Link — working for the feds? The FBI explained the senator in question wore the wire because he faces indictment on tax evasion charges and is trying to build up brownie points he can cash in at his sentencing hearing.

It’s just a fact that, in Springfield, the foxes have always guarded, now are guarding and probably will always guard the henhouse. They will do no more in terms of ethics safeguards than what they feel they have to do to keep constituents off their backs.

That’s why it’s important for constituents to stay on their backs until substantive reforms are put in place.

Legislators will always talk a good game when it comes to keeping faith with the public. They must be compelled by public pressure to play a good game.