Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Sunday, July 14

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


The great thing about writing about Illinois politics is that Rich Miller exists. I look forward to the day I can tell young Springfield staffers that I remember the days when The Capitol Fax was actually a fax sent out in tiny font. Miller's combination of constant insider reporting and a frustratingly detailed memory means any angle you think of for writing about state politics can be clip art-ed from something he has written. Rich has done the grunt work for me in this column, too, for which my weekend is greatly thankful. On the other hand, the problem with writing about state politics in Illinois is that Rich Miller exists to steal your thunder.

The "grunt work" in this instance is how the recent history of our state government organization and a partisan warfare waged in the Cook County suburbs in the 1990s resulted in a state government dominated by the "leaders" — the speaker of the House, the Senate president and the governor. Given the bill origination and appropriation power of the House, not to mention the particular power vested in the person of the likely immortal Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago), the speaker in particular is able to command enormous power over every single piece of state business. Nothing can happen without the blessing of the speaker and the peculiarly important Rules Committee he controls.

Although all three offices are vested with immense power, as Rich points out, the powers unique to the House make it such that if and when the governor or Senate president assert their power, it is more than likely in some obstructive fashion — whereas the House speaker asserting their power simply means an efficient (if undemocratic) functioning of the legislative branch.

Excuse the at-length quoting, but given Miller's beating me to the punch, it is only fair to acknowledge his work:

The independent thinkers were mostly wiped out in 1982, the first election after the Cutback Amendment took effect. A few months later, a brilliant Democratic politician named Michael Madigan was elected House speaker. Madigan was eventually nicknamed "The Velvet Hammer" for the way he consolidated power over the now much more easily governable House.

Ten years later, a new district map allowed the Senate Republicans to seize control from the Democrats and their leader decided to wage war on Madigan's House. The Senate used the war to justify passing a new set of rules that stripped rank-and-file members of numerous basic rights. Those powers now were completely in the hands of Senate President Pate Philip.

The House Republicans essentially adopted the Senate GOP's rules when they took control two years later. Madigan took back the House in 1996 and kept the Republican rules in place.

No bill or amendment can advance without the approval of the speaker or the president. Members are simply powerless.

Throughout time, the legislative party leaders also learned how to control who would be elected to the General Assembly. Once elected, they are beholden to their leaders for literally everything.

Something else happened during this time period. All state budgets were negotiated behind closed doors by the House speaker, the Senate president and the governor. The multibillion-dollar budgets were then presented "as is" to members, who would dutifully pass it so they could leave town for the summer. Then other issues were added to the budget negotiations, and pretty soon all big issues were being decided by the three men.

Although the likelihood has significantly decreased, it is still something of a possibility that comes this Election Day, Speaker Madigan could end up with a functioning veto-proof majority in the House. With the retirement of Senator Emil Jones from the Senate presidency, that partisan political power would all flow to Madigan is a no brainer; his control of both the state party and the House assure it. There are several competing interests to take over the state Senate presidency; what we know for sure is that whoever is brandishing the gavel come the reorganization, they will not be as heavy as Emil Jones, and an order of magnitude less heavy than Mike Madigan.

With an unpopular and impotent governor and a less significant (though still statutorily, and parliamentarily, powerful) Senate president, a veto-proof Democratic majority in the House would make Madigan as close to a legislative head of government as we have anywhere in the US.

The brilliance of the US system (or maybe its weakness) is the system of forced moderation embodied in the institutions of government. Our democratic analogs in Europe eschewed our system for one where a legislator becomes the de facto executive. Gordon Brown of the UK is a member of Parliament, and the Queen the head of state (the "executive") but because of the powers vested in the lower House of Parliament, the Prime Minister runs the show.

Will Michael J. Madigan end up being the Prime Minister of Illinois?

In the 1990s, a moderate Republican governor worked in tandem with a Reagan Republican Senate president to essentially run the state; there was enough power vested in each office to force the leaders to at least cooperate to form a legislative Voltron and turn their individual Semipotence into a collective Omnipotence.

If state leadership forms like Voltron, Mike Madigan is definitely the head.

Madigan's canny political strategy and legislative tactics (which could be neatly summed up in the phrase, "Destroy Blagojevich") have contributed to weakening the governor and tying the Senate president to that sinking ship, leaving the other two leaders with powers in theory but not in praxis (that's a fancy word for practice). Any successor to Jones (and there are a handful of candidates) will have to do some deal-cutting for the seat, automatically making them significantly less heavy than the outgoing president. If Senator Obama wins the presidency, leaving an absolute vacuum of state-wide leadership outside of the Madigan-Daley-Cook County apparatus, we are looking at literal one-person rule in this state.

While "throwing the bums out" could solve this problem in the short term — just as Jones' retirement makes the office of the president of the Senate temporarily less important than that of the speaker of the House — the essential problem is that of the power vested in the leaders, as Miller points out in his column. This is a structural problem. I'd like to note that I'm not necessarily calling any legislative a bum, particularly any scary legislative leaders that may or may not actually be sorcerers.

Miller makes a plea to voters to vote "yes" on Election Day for the Constitution Convention question that will be at the top of Illinoisans' ballots. I won't go quite as far, yet, but whatever your feelings about the righteousness of Madigan's legislative program, it is intellectually dishonest to argue for this status quo when so many progressives and Democrats would be bucking under the single-handed control of an omnipotent Republican speaker of the House. For that reason alone, Illinois voters should seriously consider breaking the powers of the leaders and dealing with Voltron piece by piece.

GB store


John / September 24, 2008 6:49 PM

So what does this bill do?

Rich Miller / September 24, 2008 11:37 PM

Good piece.

One tiny quibble. Edgar and Pate couldn't rule on their own without MJM. Same went for GHRyan.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15