The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “anarchy” simply as “the absence of government.” That’s essentially the situation we’re stuck in, since the Illinois General Assembly—which has not met since last spring—decided it was closed for business.
There is a second definition, too. “A state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority,” it reads.
That fits even better. “Lawlessness” matches the description of acts alleged in a federal indictment that puts House Speaker Mike Madigan at the center of a government-for-sale scheme on a scale beyond anything in living memory.
Madigan has not been charged with a crime and says he did nothing wrong. But his political crony, Mike McClain, was arraigned in federal court Dec. 2, along with former Commonwealth Edison CEO Anne Pramaggiore and two others.
History’s longest-serving statehouse speaker has lost all “governmental authority”—Webster’s definition again—due to the taint of the federal probe. The General Assembly canceled the fall veto session amid an unspoken understanding that Madigan lacks authority to lead the Legislature while sitting at the bull’s-eye of a federal probe.
As for “political disorder,” that’s what we have now.
As of this writing, at least 19 House Democrats have stated publicly they will not vote for Madigan as speaker in January. That leaves him six votes short of the 60 needed to win the job.
Consider that Kathleen Willis, D-Addison, on Dec. 1 became the first member of House leadership to state she will not vote for Madigan as speaker again.
Willis put it in writing, the better to make her stance irreversible. To make it unforgettable, she called the still-speaker of the House “Representative Madigan.” No one has dared call him that for a quarter century and more.
Yet Madigan’s hold on the speakership is not quite dead yet. The surplus of speakers-in-waiting is so large, it likely will take multiple ballots for one to win the needed 60 votes. If the process goes to repeat rounds, the embattled Madigan could yet corral enough votes to hold on to the job.
As a matter of principle, the Legislature should be convening now—whether in veto session or a special session—to address the state’s vexing problems: a $4 billion budget shortfall, with no federal help in sight; a lack of movement on ethics reform; a much-needed equity agenda that has yet to be clearly articulated or written into legislative language.
But the “political disorder” is such that, as a practical reality, meeting now could be counterproductive.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has the power to call the Legislature back to work. But if Pritzker did so now, who would lead the House? What legitimacy would it have with Madigan in charge—whether with gavel in hand or orchestrating from out of sight?
If meeting in session now, with Madigan hanging on, the Legislature would be stuck in the same bottleneck that has hobbled progress for decades. Every piece of legislation would need to pass through that familiar, narrow gate of what Speaker Madigan will allow to become law.
The best course now is for the legislative process to move forward under a different tactical framework. Lawmakers can free themselves to fashion the best possible solutions, without the standard worry about a thumbs-up or -down from the all-powerful speaker.
After all, chances are, he won’t be in power by the time the votes are counted come January.
A few committees are scheduling in-person work. Legislative working groups can meet, too—with public access, of course. Holding informal Zoom sessions, they could give due consideration to solutions for the complex, large-scale problems facing the state.
The competition to succeed Madigan will carry on all month—the more openly it happens, the better. The forum for speaker candidates, set for Dec. 5 by the Legislative Black Caucus, is a start. There should be more such face-offs, too. If the meetings winnow the list of contenders, this would consolidate voting and reduce the chances of die-hard Madigan supporters gaming the vote for speaker to protect his hold on power.
Anarchy can be destabilizing. But because the usual rules are not in effect, it can create opportunity, too.