SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois House adopted new rules on Wednesday that Democrats say are intended to make the legislative process more transparent, but Republicans argue they don’t go far enough in reforming how the General Assembly operates.
The new rules represent one of the first attempts by newly-elected House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch to break from the practices and traditions of his predecessor, former Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan’s opponents claimed he exercised vast authority to decide which bills would be assigned to committees, which ones would come to the floor for a vote, and which ones would not.
“These new house rules really do represent a historical turning point in rules development and adoption in the House of Representatives,” House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said while explaining the new rules.
Harris said the rules are also “just a first step in reforming ways of the past and injecting more transparency and accountability, while ensuring our chamber operates effectively and fairly.”
One of the most significant changes from the Madigan era is a new rule that limits any individual to serving no more than five biennial sessions, or 10 years, in either the office of speaker or minority leader. Madigan served in that role for all but two years from 1983 until this January.
Another major change allows legislative committees to meet and take votes remotely “in the case of pestilence or public danger.” The inability to meet virtually has been a handicap for the House since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which virtually shut down the 2020 regular session as well as the fall veto session.
House leaders have said they plan to limit most legislative activity to remote committee meetings at least through the end of February, and they don’t plan on the full House coming back into session to vote on bills until sometime in March or April.
Other changes are more technical in nature, but still important to the legislative process, including rules that apply to the Rules Committee itself. That’s a committee, usually made up of top legislative leaders, where all bills and resolutions go first and then get referred to other committees.
It has also been a committee where, in the opinion of some, good legislation would go to die because the committee had the option of sitting on bills and not referring them to any other committee, thus ensuring they would never receive a hearing or come up for a vote.
Under the new rules, in odd-numbered years, the Rules Committee will be required to refer all House bills it receives to a substantive committee before the deadline for committees to act on bills, as long as the bill was filed in a timely fashion. Exceptions exist if the principal sponsor asks for it to be held for some reason.
“Once again, the members of the 102nd General Assembly are making it clear that this does mark the end of business as usual,” Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, D-Chicago, said during debate on the rules. “These new rules have been developed through a fair and transparent process that has brought in good ideas from both sides of the aisle.”
Republicans, however, argued that the change would make little difference because individual committee chairs could still stifle legislation, either by never calling a hearing on a bill or by referring it to a subcommittee, which would be under no obligation to ever meet.
They also argued that the rule applies only to bills and not to proposed constitutional amendments such as the so-called “Fair Maps” amendment, which has support from members of both parties in its effort to overhaul the way Illinois redraws legislative and congressional district lines every 10 years.
Republicans had also pushed for other changes such as requiring public notices for which bills would be considered in committees or on the House floor each day, something that in many cases isn’t decided until the last minute.
“We’ve had too many instances, the latest being in lame duck session, where significant bills were brought forward for debate at the 11th hour,” Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, said during debate. “As lawmakers we need adequate time to read bills in final form and time to determine our position on each issue like we did with these rules, which was really a nice process.”
Harris responded to those criticisms by saying that members of both parties have used the rules in recent years to get around the normal posting requirements. But he also said Democrats would be willing to consider additional changes if the two sides can come to an agreement.
“I stand with the speaker in saying we look forward to working with you in the next several months on addressing some of these items, and if we all agree that there are some problems to fix and we come to a consensus, then let’s fix them,” Harris said.