* Will Caskey, a regular commenter here and one of the state’s top opposition researchers, penned an op-ed for Crain’s about Debbie Halvorson’s self-published memoir “Playing With The Big Boys” and extrapolates what the real problem is in Illinois…
I have read her 147-page book and find that it unintentionally provides some insights into how Springfield works — or, more precisely, doesn’t work. Take, for example, her explanation for voting for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s ill-fated Gross Receipts Tax despite not liking it at all:
I quickly piped up and said that it was a terrible idea and it wouldn’t work. I was told otherwise and to watch it move through the legislature. Under my breath I was mouthing, ‘Not with my vote’…Those of us on the Senate Executive Committee (which is made up solely of Senate leadership) were pressured to vote on the measure to move it to the full Senate for discussion.
In Ms. Halvorson’s view, her voting record isn’t her fault; then-Senate President Emil Jones or, later, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are to blame. Even worse, as the memoirist tells it, Ms. Pelosi didn’t listen to Ms. Halvorson’s advice about her own district […]
Write it down, ladies: “Playing ball with the big boys” means doing whatever the big boys say even when you think it’s awful. And then you lose your election and self-publish a book about it. Ms. Halvorson’s career is a tragedy in two parts: She did what she was told, and then there were consequences.
* The problem…
(L)eaders in both legislative chambers in Illinois have an unusual amount of power: Committees are a formality at best, and legislation is almost always advanced as amendments to empty “shell bills” after last-minute deals. Rank-and-file legislators have almost no reason to raise their own money, or advance their own bills and whip their own votes, or show any other typical political skill. All they have to do is show up and vote as they’re told. And it works, right up until they try to move up into Congress, where a decent campaign costs over $2 million and no one is interested in giving them that much money.
That explains what happened to Ms. Halvorson. She went from Springfield to Washington and got clobbered.
And that, in a nutshell, is Illinois: We suck because of strong party leadership, not despite it. Ms. Halvorson and politicians like her are just the logical outcome of a top-heavy power structure. The setup has its benefits, sometimes, when both chambers and the governor have a minimally functional relationship. But whether that relationship exists or not, individual members are free to be knuckleheads, so they are. Democrats in Illinois don’t have to be smart, or good at their own fundraising, or effective at legislating, so they aren’t. When they face tough votes, they complain about having to take them instead of following the best path to re-election. When they have to raise their own money, they complain that the party hasn’t come through. When they face the consequences to their own actions and records, they’re astonished.
* However, it’s not always this way. Kurt Erickson takes a look at how sub-caucuses have often held sway in the Illinois GA…
In the frenzied final hours of the 2005 spring session of the Illinois General Assembly, the push to finalize a new state budget suddenly ground to a halt when a bloc of Democratic lawmakers announced they couldn’t support the spending plan.
Without their votes, there was no way the Democratic majority could adopt a budget without Republican input, raising speculation that the session could go into overtime.
Facing the prospect of being stuck in Springfield during the summer months, House Speaker Michael Madigan called the members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus into his private office near the House floor to try to find a way to meet their needs and keep the budget-making process on track. Hours later, members of the caucus announced they were back on board. No terms of the negotiations were ever outlined, but Republicans pointed to the insertion into the budget of hundreds of millions of dollars for local projects as an example of how the deal likely was sealed. […]
The incident is just one example of the role that caucuses can play in the legislative process. And, with Democrats now holding super-majorities in the Senate and the House, the informal coalitions could become an even bigger factor in what gets done and what doesn’t on the floor of the House and Senate. […]
In theory, the majorities held by Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton could allow them to ignore the threat of a veto from the governor.
Cullerton, however, believes the possibility of that happening is “exaggerated’’ because of the diverse nature of the Democratic caucus. In other words, just because they are Democrats doesn’t mean they see eye to eye on every issue.
“We have numerous caucuses. We have to compromise within our caucuses,” Cullerton says.
And last year, Senate Democratic incumbents raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on their own, which was then supplemented by money from their leader. It was quite impressive.
* But, yeah, legislative leaders are often like ward committeemen and their members are like constituents. They are coddled and serviced into submission. And when that doesn’t work, the hammer comes down.