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Mr. Speaker: You Have Too Much Power

It shouldn't be surprising to see legislative leaders being accused of corruption. The iron-fisted control many of them have over the legislative process makes for a system ripe for ethical abuse.

Former speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver was sentenced on July 20, 2020 to 6 1/2 years in prison. (Louis Lanzano/Sipa USA/TNS)
Political power and corruption too often go hand in hand. For evidence, look no further than two of the country's longest-serving state legislative leaders, Sheldon Silver and Mike Madigan.

Silver, a former speaker of the New York State Assembly, was sentenced July 20 to six and a half years in prison after an appeals court upheld his conviction on charges that included illegally using his office to benefit two real-estate developers in exchange for cash. Just three days before that, news broke that Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House, was implicated in a federal bribery case alleging that a utility company won his favor to back legislation by directing $1.3 million in contracts and payments to his associates and letting him name people for jobs, from meter reader on up.

Silver and Madigan are Democrats, but the issue of statehouse corruption is bipartisan. On July 21, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, was among those arrested in connection with a $60 million bribery case. And in recent years, speakers of both parties in Alabama, Rhode Island and South Carolina have faced indictments on corruption charges.

Are these individuals the outliers? Or are rules that over-empower state speakers working to preserve a cycle of corruption? It's not hard to make a case for the latter. In too many states, the system gives an over-abundance of power and control to top legislative officials, pointing to the need for rules reform.

Consider New York, where Silver was speaker from 1994 to 2015. As a Buffalo News editorial put it back in 2000, "The Assembly speaker has too much power. He controls everything, from the legislation that can be voted on to how his normally docile members vote on it."

But Illinois is the worst of the worst when it comes to consolidation of power in this role. Even a treetop view of Illinois' state rules shows how a power-hungry Madigan could go from influential state leader to his fall under a grand jury subpoena, with calls for his resignation coming from both parties. Madigan has held the speaker's gavel for 35 of the last 37 years. With that long reign has come an accumulation of codified rules that will pass the same power on to the next speaker. Revising these rules would give more power back to voters and keep future speakers from corrupting Illinois from the inside out.

Here are just three examples of current rules in the Illinois House — variations of which exist in some other state legislatures as well — that are ripe for change:

• One current rule needing removal provides that "any order of business may be changed at any time by the Speaker or Presiding Officer." Not only are there always more bills than the House can vote on, but the speaker can call those bills in any order he wants, regardless of the calendar. Establishing a set schedule for voting would allow rank-and-file legislators to do the proper work to create and pass bills without undue pressure from the speaker to push forward his own priorities.

• In Illinois, the speaker appoints the majority of each committee's members, including the chair, and even decides who votes in committees. These positions can be used as rewards for siding with the speaker or taken away for crossing him. Prior to controversial committee votes, the speaker can even swap out vulnerable lawmakers for those holding safer seats, through a process called "substitution." Substitution should be banned. And committee leaders should not be beholden to the speaker for their positions. Committee chairs should be appointed by a majority vote of their caucus.

• A third example is how the Illinois speaker can single-handedly kill popular bills, such as ethics reform, through the Rules Committee. That committee is supposed to serve as a bureaucratic halfway house that assigns bills to substantive committees for a hearing. Instead, it is a graveyard for threats to Madigan's power. In order to discharge a bill from Rules without the committee's approval, a lawmaker must file a motion supported by three-fifths of House Democrats and three-fifths of Republicans, all of whom must be sponsors of the bill. Otherwise, discharge requires a unanimous vote of the House. It should only take a simple majority vote of House members to discharge a bill from the Rules Committee to give it a fair hearing in a substantive committee or on the House floor.

When you give one person the power to call the shots in a state, it's not surprising that big corporations would be quick to try to grease these officials' palms to get things done. Rules like those listed above serve only the speaker and his or her own interests, and they need to be changed. A system that benefits the few at the expense of the many is corrupt to the core.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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