Very seldom does any one individual have the type of golden opportunity that recently elected Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch has been presented.
The story is stale now as to how the longest serving state House speaker in the history of the United States, Michael Madigan, lost his grip on the gavel here in Illinois. Madigan has been a member of the Illinois House since 1971, and for all but two years since 1983, the 78-year-old served as speaker. In 1995-96, Republican Lee Daniels managed to wrestle the gavel away.
It was during those two years of GOP control that the House adopted rules that provided the speaker with immeasurable power. In fact, House rules passed during the two years that Madigan was not speaker started the slide to what has become almost one-person rule. It was a slippery slope resulting in democracy being replaced with autocratic rule.
During the time I was a member of the Illinois House, I watched as these rules stymied attempts by legislators of both parties from moving proposals forward. Currently, House rules provide the speaker with the authority to assign a majority of committee seats to members of the majority party. Committee members then serve at the pleasure of the speaker and can be removed or substituted at any time.
The most critical committee a legislator can be assigned to is the Rules Committee. When a bill is filed, it goes to the Rules Committee for consideration. This panel either assigns it to another standing committee or debates it itself. There is no other real avenue for the bill to move forward.
A representative can move to discharge a bill from Rules Committee, but the motion must pass by unanimous consent. That is a high hurdle since the speaker is also a House member and can simply vote “no.”
Amendments can be filed to each bill as it moves through the process, but those amendments are also initially assigned to the Rules Committee. Because the speaker assigns a majority of members to the committee, this allows for absolute control.
So far, Welch has talked like someone who is open to changing some House rules. I hope so. All too often, when all is said and done, there is more said than done. This opportunity is critical and too rare for mere lip service.
Changing the rule regarding discharging proposals from Rules Committee would be a good start.
I am not suggesting that every bill should be sent to the House floor for consideration. Thousands are filed every year and there is no way all of them could be heard.
However, a rule could be adopted allowing for any measure that is co-sponsored by a majority of House members (60) to go to the floor, and any measure co-sponsored by a reasonable number — say, 40 — could be released to a standing committee.
How about a rule change that requires the final version of the state budget to be on display for at least 72 hours? I was a school superintendent for 17 years, and my district’s budget was required to be on display for 30 days.
Further, any bill that is in a final form should be held for at least 24 hours before a final vote. Currently, amendments that are hundreds of pages long are filed on bills and dumped on the desks of lawmakers to vote on without proper time to study the final version. Even worse is that citizens represented by the lawmaker do not have time to contact their elected officials to weigh in. Unintended consequences could be avoided if more time were taken to study final versions.
These are just two examples of potential changes. There are many more rule changes that would turn Illinois around and restore confidence in our state government. You might want to let Welch know your thoughts. Contact information is located at ilga.gov under “House members.” Let’s not miss this golden opportunity.