Bribery scheme implicating Madigan revives term limits talk

When federal prosecutors unveil a bribery scheme in the state Capitol that points a finger at the House speaker, and the speaker has been in charge for 3 1/2 decades, it’s natural that some would turn to a popular but contentious solution:

Term limits.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois unleashed the political thunderbolt this month in announcing that utility giant ComEd will pay $200 million to resolve a criminal case which alleges it took part in a decade-long scam that implicates Speaker Michael Madigan. The investigation found that ComEd accepted favorable legislation in return for arranging jobs and contracts “for various associates of a high-level elected official” whom they identified as the speaker without naming Madigan.

The Chicago Democrat, who in 2017 became the longest-serving leader of a legislative body in U.S. history, has said he will be exonerated. A spokeswoman declined further comment.

The problem the allegations pose is obvious. Mike Lawrence, a longtime statehouse reporter, senior adviser to former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and political-reform activist, has long opposed term limits in favor of “stability” in leadership, noting that while many complain that Madigan is “part of the problem,” he’s been a part of many solutions over the years. But Lawrence is aware of the downside.

“The longer people are in positions of power, the less sensitive they are to ethical concerns,” Lawrence said. “The longer they’re in, the greater their sense of entitlement.”

A political drumbeat of former Repubican Gov. Bruce Rauner, term limits remain on some agendas. Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican, has proposed a constitutional amendment, with some key Democratic backing, to limit legislative leaders to eight years in one leadership position and 12 in two. For example, a four-term Senate minority leader whose party wins the majority could serve two more terms as president.“That’s plenty of time to be able to do your job as a leader and move on, give other people an opportunity,” Butler said.

Madigan was just 40, a 12-year House veteran, when he was elected speaker on Jan. 12, 1983. His mettle shone during the 1990s, a decade governed by a legislative-district map drawn to favor Republicans. The GOP put a decade-long lock on the Senate but was able to win the House just once, from 1995-97, before Madigan’s rebound.

And thus, the anomaly of Madigan. No one approaches his 18 terms. Since 1819, only five people have served more than two terms at the top of the House, led by Republicans David Shanahan, with six intermittently between 1915 and 1933, and William Wood, with four in a row during the 1950s.

Nearly 7 in 10 speakers had just a single two-year stint. During Madigan’s tenure, there have been five Senate presidents, although four of them are leaders in Senate top-job tenure.

So remarkable is his run that, for many, “term limits is code in this state for opposition to the speaker,” said Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois. Young calls limits a “blunt-force tool” when other reforms, such as overhauling the way legislative districts are drawn, would do more good.

Anyone who thinks term limits alone would eliminate corruption need look no further than term-limited Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican who was arrested last week on a federal complaint alleging his participation in a $60 million bribery scheme.

Surprisingly, the other legislative leaders are already term-limited. The Senate Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate already limit their leaders’ terms through legislative rules. Retired Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat who began his career in the House as a Madigan protege, took the lead in 2017 to restrict leaders to five two-year terms as either minority or majority leader.

A key argument against limits is that it means too many new, inexperienced officeholders reliant on the institution — staff, bureaucrats, lobbyists — worsening the problem that was supposed to be solved. But anyone who watches the Illinois General Assembly sees regular turnover — with each new legislative session, a host of new faces, many of whom quickly become acclimated.

For leaders, it’s a different matter. It’s easy to see how someone with Madigan’s skill can hang on. Like the other 117 mostly rank-and-file House members, Madigan is chosen by just 109,000 voters in his representative district. The governor, for example, must win a majority of a potential 8 million voters statewide. Once in Springfield, he’s chosen speaker by as few as 61 members — many of whom have relied on the speaker’s $20 million in campaign funds and his sponsorship in his dual role as state party chairman to get elected themselves.

The longer it continues, the more “people will be afraid to buck that enormous power structure that’s been built up over the years, and that they or their friends and colleagues have been drawn into and come to rely on,” said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois.