In 2020, one of the largest energy companies in America, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), admitted to bribing “Public Official A” for legislation that allowed the company to increase the utility rates ComEd charged to Illinois citizens. Public Official A is almost certainly former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the longest-serving House Speaker in a state legislature in American history. Though Madigan denies wrongdoing and has not yet been charged, the evidence indicates that for close to a decade, ComEd bribed Madigan—for example, by giving Madigan’s allies political patronage jobs and “do-nothing consulting” contracts—in exchange for favorable legislation.
Madigan’s tenure as Speaker exemplifies Lord Acton’s adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. During his time as Speaker, Madigan consolidated power over the legislative process, as well as substantial leverage over how other House members voted. This concentration of influence made him the ideal corruption broker for companies like ComEd. Preventing this sort of corruption from arising in the future will require various reforms, including the empowerment of external watchdogs, such as the currently dysfunctional and ineffective Office of the Legislative Inspector General. But while proposals to reform this office (see here and here) are welcome, genuine structural reform will require addressing the excessive concentration of power in the House Speaker. If Illinois, and similar jurisdictions, hope to tackle the sort of corruption we see in the ComEd scandal, it is essential to ensure greater dispersion of power within the legislature.
To understand how Madigan was able to establish himself as a corrupt powerbroker in the Illinois House, one must first understand the sources of his institutional power. As Speaker, Madigan was able to shape the House’s procedural rules so as to create legislative chokepoints that gave him sole control of what bills made it to the floor, as well as the contents of those bills. Perhaps most importantly, Madigan effectively controlled the powerful Rules Committee, which under Illinois legislative procedures decides whether any proposed bill gets forwarded to the appropriate substantive committee. The Rules Committee can also indefinitely sit on the bill until it “dies.” As Speaker, Madigan appointed the majority of the Rules Committee’s members, and he could also remove them at will. This gave Madigan the power to block any bill that he did not want the House to consider.
Furthermore, for those bills that did make it out of the Rules Committee, Madigan could influence whether the bill made it out of the substantive committee with jurisdiction. As Speaker, Madigan could change committee assignments at will. So, if Madigan wanted to move some piece of legislation through committee but certain legislators on the committee had reservations, Madigan could simply swap them out with replacements. And in those cases where Madigan and his allies wanted to bypass the committee process altogether, they took advantage of a loophole that allowed them to push through a “shell” bill, that contained no substantive language, and then, right before the final vote, Madigan’s team would insert whatever language they wanted into that empty bill and force a final vote before the public and the majority of legislators would even have a chance even to read it.
In addition to his ability to manipulate the process, Madigan was able to use his power as Speaker to offer individual legislators powerful incentives—both positive and negative—to influence their votes on key bills. For example, the Illinois House Rules give the Speaker the sole power to assign House leadership posts and committee chairs—which come with a stipend in addition to the additional power and prestige they confer.
Each of these powers, viewed individually, might not seem like a significant concern. But taken together, they conferred far too much power over the legislative process in one person. Such concentration of power facilitates the sort of grand corruption that has come to light in the ComEd scandal. Put simply, Madigan offered a one-stop shop for all of ComEd’s legislative needs. Had legislative power been more dispersed, it would have been harder for ComEd to succeed in corrupting the Illinois legislature. The company would have had to bribe more people, possibly paying more in total, and certainly increasing the risks of a leak or a whistleblower. Once the company was confident that it could get what it wanted just by dealing with Madigan, its corrupt scheme likely seemed more profitable and less risky.
Part of the solution, then, is not just punishing this one person, but rather reforming the legislature so as to disperse power and create more checks and balances. If the political will is there, there are several straightforward options that could the House could adopt that would help. For instance, the House could do away with the requirement that all proposed rules are first funneled to the Rules Committee, or could take away the Speaker’s unilateral authority to select and remove the Rules Committee’s members. The House could also curb the Speaker’s power to appoint committee leaders. Another possible reform, recently advocated by newly appointed Speaker Chris Welch, is to implement term limits on the Speaker position, so as to prevent any one person from solidifying his or her hold over the House.
The problem with these solutions is that they can be reversed by the Speaker. While Welch has pledged to open up the legislative control, how can he be held accountable if he fails to fulfill this pledge? And what about the Speaker after him? The House’s control over its procedural rules—which can be changed by majority vote—is meant to give the body flexibility in the design of its legislative procedures, but this control can be abused and manipulated. And the Speaker will likely retain significant influence, which could be deployed to get a majority for or against proposed rule changes. Ultimately, then, the solution will likely need to come from the outside. The General Assembly may need to amend the Illinois Constitution to enact additional safeguards. Passing a constitutional amendment requires Herculean effort to achieve (it requires an affirmative vote of three-fifths of both the House and the Senate, followed by approval from Illinois voters), but once achieved, it would be much harder to rescind. The current investigation into Madigan may provide the necessary impetus for Illinois to enact significant and difficult change. While passing legislation to empower the Inspector General is straightforward, creating additional safeguards by amending the constitution, though more difficult, may also be crucial if Illinois is serious about achieving lasting change.