One of the less-noticed comments from last year’s governor’s race was a remark then-Gov. Bruce Rauner made in Ottawa, where he and other Republicans vowed to get rid of House Speaker Mike Madigan and impose term limits.
Before signing the all-for-show “People’s Pledge,” Rauner grossly mischaracterized how long it takes to learn the ropes in Springfield. My notes from the July event are long gone, but I checked my colleagues’ filings to see if I’d heard Rauner correctly. I had.
“Rauner says a new lawmaker or other office holder needs just six months to a year to learn how the system works,” WCMY summarized in its July 18 story, “so a decade is enough time in office.”
It was a tin-eared comment by Rauner; and I regret now I didn’t ask him why, if the learning curve weren’t so steep, he didn’t fix the state’s budget problems in his first year. (Likely answer: “Well, if it weren’t for Mike Madigan…”) I simply rolled my eyes and let it pass unchallenged, mindful that he was going to lose, anyway.
Rauner did indeed lose, but the question of term limits is far from finished. And for the record, past members of the General Assembly have opined that you need more than six months on the job to figure out Springfield.
But earlier this month, a Republican lawmaker introduced a bill that addresses the issue sensibly, even if it’s also doomed to fail.
State Rep. Thomas Bennett, a Republican from Pontiac, filed a measure (House Bill 351) that would not impose term limits on rank-and-file members but would set term limits of 10 years for House and Senate leadership posts. If enacted — spoiler alert: it won’t be — the limits would take effect with the General Assembly seated in January 2021.
Make no mistake: This bill will not become law. Bennett is on the wrong end of a strangling Democratic majority and Madigan, age 77 in April, has given no indications he’s contemplating retirement. The Velvet Hammer won’t advance any bill that dictates his own ouster.
That’s a pity because there is a meritorious case for limiting leadership roles rather than putting term limits on all legislative posts.
I oppose term limits generally for two reasons. First, the state’s problems have only grown in complexity and it would be counterproductive to trim the herd of lawmakers with knowledge and experience needed to tackle our many challenges.
Second, it is difficult to pinpoint what comprises a reasonable number of terms. On Capitol Hill, for example, a five-term limit would hold lawmakers to only 10 years’ service in the House and a whopping 30 in the Senate. How’s that for parity?
Setting term limits for leadership, however, is an altogether different proposition. Here, we’re no longer capping how much experience a lawmaker can accrue but instead limiting how long a master puppeteer can call the shots.
That’s a worthwhile goal for the Illinois General Assembly, which has long been criticized for structural problems that give party leaders disproportionate control over campaign finance as well as procedural rules.
Republicans are fond of repeating that Madigan has to go and they aren’t wrong; but both parties have had tyrannical leaders (Pate Philip, anyone?) who make a case for limiting how much time one should wield the gavel.
The hope here is legislators will at least talk about it — even if they certainly won’t do it.