When Mike Madigan first became speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives in 1983, Illinois was among a handful of states that enjoyed a AAA credit rating. In 2013, Illinois was declared the least creditworthy state in the nation. Now the state is just one notch above junk status.
Many things have changed in state government during the past 36 years. Madigan has held constant.
And that will continue, as House members this week elected Madigan to his 18th term as speaker on a 72-44 vote, following the inauguration of the 101st General Assembly. State Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, will retain his role as House minority leader.
There was a wrinkle, however.
One House member, state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville, voted “present.” It was the first time in Madigan’s more than three decades as speaker that a freshman Democrat refused to cast this vote for him. Stava-Murray has been a vocal critic of the speaker’s handling of sexual harassment allegations in his party organization and his treatment of the #MeToo movement generally.
Her lone voice of dissent highlights the overwhelming, unique power Madigan wields as speaker and as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.
Madigan holds a 21 percent job approval rating statewide, according to Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Yet he is re-elected to the speakership every two years due to the pain he can inflict on dissenters. How?
What truly gives the speakership so much power is another vote in the House – the vote for the rules of the chamber. Through the House rules, Madigan can assign committee chair positions and the $10,000 stipends that come with them, control who votes in committees, dictate when a bill will be called for a vote, and even control what bills make it to a vote in the first place.
No other state legislative body in the nation grants such broad powers to its House speaker.
It should be noted that Republican leadership expanded the power these rules granted legislative leaders in the 1990s. But Madigan has been happy to further expand and cement them in the two decades since Democrats took back control of the House.
The House will likely vote on its rules for the 101st General Assembly on Jan. 29.
But it’s not just the rules from which Madigan draws power. He is also the only legislative leader in the nation to head a state political party. As chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, Madigan simultaneously controls policy, politics and purse strings.
Voting “present” for speaker will likely cost you the ability to have your bills see the light of day. But it also puts you squarely in the crosshairs for a well-funded primary opponent.
Of course, Stava-Murray will undoubtedly face consequences for her speaker vote.
The fact that her stance is so costly is exactly why the House rules vote – granting one man extraordinary power – is so important.