Illinois Statehouse Climate Gets Warmer Print
Commentary/Politics - National Politics
Written by Rich Miller   
Monday, 19 January 2009 11:39

miller.jpgIllinois state Senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago) said last week that the Senate Democrats will seek "feedback" from the Senate Republicans before making final decisions on new rules for the chamber. Steans was put in charge of devising new rules by Senate President John Cullerton several months ago.

That statement, probably more than anything else that was said or done recently, illustrates how much things are about to change in the Illinois Senate.

For 10 years, Republican Senate President Pate Philip justified his partisan games by pointing to past grievances over how the Democrats had treated his caucus. Since Democrat Emil Jones became Senate president in 2003, we've heard an almost exact replica of Pate's old refrains time and time again, only with the aggrieved parties reversed.

It was long past time to get beyond this endless back-and-forth goofiness, and that appears to be happening now that Jones has finally retired.

The chamber's rules have always been the province of the Senate president, and he (it's always a "he") has held tightly to that power and used it for his own and his own party's advantage. So, the president's majority party consulting the minority party on proposed new rules is absolutely without precedence.

The old rules allowed the Senate president to control almost every single aspect of the Senate's activities. Members couldn't advance any legislation of any kind without the Senate Rules Committee's approval. The committee, of course, was completely controlled by the Senate president. In other words, nothing moved without one person's say-so. It has been an intolerable situation, particularly for the party that was out of power.

The new rules will be addressed and adopted once the impeachment trial of Governor Rod Blagojevich ends sometime early next month. The one change that appeared last week was a new "Committee on Assignment" in place of the old, and often hated, Rules Committee. Killing off the Rules Committee is akin to knocking down the Berlin Wall.

Cullerton also pledged last week to end a notorious practice made infamous by Philip and continued with gusto by Emil Jones: sending bills to the House that are obviously doomed in order to put some sort of political pressure on the other chamber. The tactic never worked, and more often than not backfired badly on the Senate.

"We must reach agreement [with the House] rather than trying to one-up each other by passing bills that will never be enacted," Cullerton said during his inaugural address.

Senator Cullerton's new chief of staff even wandered over to the press box last week for a chat - something that I've never seen happen in the almost 19 years I've been covering the chamber. He later promised a much more open approach by the Senate Democrats' operation.

And when the governor's defense lawyers quit in protest over the Senate's impeachment-trial rules last week, Cullerton said it wouldn't delay the trial.

"That's his problem. Get another lawyer," said Cullerton, adding, "Rod can defend himself; he's a lawyer."

A response like that would've been unheard of during Blagojevich pal Emil Jones' tenure.

It's more than just a new day. If this stuff continues, then we will be in an entirely new era. And once that fresh openness starts in the Senate, it may spread to the House.

And speaking of the House, Speaker Michael Madigan has refused to return Blagojevich's phone calls for years, and has even refused to be in the same room with him since 2007. That intransigence (albeit for good reasons) has triggered a massive government meltdown since the governor's 2006 re-election.

But things may be changing soon. Madigan told a Chicago radio station recently that he has met "on and off" with Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn during the past two years. Madigan also revealed that the two men have discussed Quinn's transition to the governor's office. When the transition comes, Madigan said, "We'll be ready to move forward to try and resolve some of these huge problems that afflict the state."

Madigan said the first order of business would be to "balance the books ... pay the bills," noting that the state is 90 to 120 days behind in its payments to state service providers.

The two men may not see eye-to-eye on solving all the problems, but at least Madigan will physically be looking Quinn in the eye if and or when he says "no." 

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and TheCapitolFaxBlog.com.