The ComEd Corruption Scandal is a Wake Up Call for Illinois

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.

12 thoughts on “The ComEd Corruption Scandal is a Wake Up Call for Illinois

  1. Pingback: The ComEd Corruption Scandal is a Wake Up Call for Illinois | GAB - GOOD NEWS NIGERIA

  2. Fantastic post, Vincent! Corruption in state and local legislatures is too-often overlooked in favor of national and international level issues. Do you have recommendations for measures that other state legislatures could take prophylactically? Maybe insuring that they don’t concentrate unchecked control over legislative agenda in the hands of single lawmaker, as happened here in Illinois? The comparatively low attention typically paid to state-level lawmaking seems to make these bodies particularly vulnerable to corruption.

    • Hi Vincent – agree, really interesting post! I’m also curious to know if the Illinois concentrated power approach is the norm or the exception among other state legislatures. If the former, the corruption scandal in Illinois could be just the tip of the iceberg!

      • Thank you! I think other states have similar rules that tend to concentrate power towards a single individual but I think what makes Illinois stand out is that it had more rules set in place that aggrandized a Speaker’s power than other states. For example, the IL Speaker didn’t have term limits, had the power to remove committee chairs, can dole out additional compensation to committee chairs, abused the shell bill provision, etc. – taken together it was far too much control.

        As to your point Mayze, it’s hard to recommend any changes prophylactically without knowing the context of the state legislature. In general, having some kind of power check is ideal or giving more authority to the opposition party in the House, but that comes with its own drawbacks. My biggest concern with IL specifically is that the new Speaker is advocating for changes and have taken steps in that direction, but these are merely amending the House Rules which can be changed back by a succeeding Speaker.

  3. This is a great post! I was wondering if other states have similar situation where a large amount of power is concentrated in a single legislative official? My worry is that state government is a pretty boring topic for the average person, and there is little reporting on the topic. So it seems like if there is someone who has similar power to the IL Speaker, that person might have a lot of cover to engage in the same kind of corruption that was going on in IL.

    • The decline of local news, particularly newspapers, probably doesn’t bode well for the type of resource-intensive investigatory journalism that can uncover this type of corruption.

      • Thanks guys! I think other states have similar rules in place but not the full buffet of options that the IL Speaker had. I agree with your concern that generally, state politics tend to attract very few eyes, and if this was another state, I may not have had as much success in researching. However, IL and Chicago are essentially synonymous with corruption given its scandalous history so I feel the local reporting in Chicago will always have an eye out for corruption-related topics.

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  5. Pingback: This Week in FCPA-Episode 249 – the Whistleblower edition - Compliance ReportCompliance Report

  6. Hi Vincent, I’m extremely interested in the permanence (or lack thereof) of the solutions– is my understanding correct that the absolute power of the Speaker, is constitutionally enshrined via the House Rules? If this is the case, I’m wondering what extra-legislative solutions that could be set in place to create a custom of anti-corruption. For example, would transparency rules passed by a reform-minded legislature sufficiently serve to prevent future abuses?

    • I’m not quite sure what you mean by constitutionally enshrined, but I believe the Illinois Constitution leaves much of the mechanics of how the House operates to the House Rules. I’m sure extra-legislative solutions would be helpful, but I’m not sure how feasible they are and how willing the Democrats are going to give up power. Sure, they may want to curtail their power, but maybe they also want to leave the option open to expand if necessary.

  7. Pingback: This Week in FCPA-Episode 250 – the Oh is Out edition - Compliance ReportCompliance Report

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