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Reform in Name Only

Jim Merriner 5 May 2009 2 Comments

I don’t know whether Pat Collins was puzzled that I would ask him such a question, but other folks at my table at the City Club were. Collins, chair of the Illinois Reform Commission, presented the commission’s report to the Club last week. In the following Q-and-A, I asked why the commission apparently had ignored the part of Gov. Quinn’s executive order that directed them to “draft, to the extent feasible, proposed statutory language.”

“Jim, you’re wrong,” Collins said, explaining that the commission would work with the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) to craft some bills to carry out their proposed reforms.

You are thinking, this is an issue that might concern a political junkie but not a sane person. Who cares whether they drafted legislation or not?

Because the question gets to the heart of why Illinois reformers almost always fail: They do not understand politics.
Not to single out Cindy Canary, who has fought the good fight for many years as head of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, but consider these official minutes of the Feb. 23 commission hearing:

“Patrick Collins noted that one problem is that the current beneficiaries of the system are the ones that are going to have to change the way things are done. How can we break through? Ms. Canary stated that this is a bipartisan problem and the way to change it is through public comment and telling to [sic] legislators that things need to change.”

The assumption here? Reform is primarily a function of public relations, of turning up the publicity dial. It is not, therefore, a function of actually making the sausage, of getting a damn bill written, sponsored, and passed.
In an email to Collins after his speech, I said, “Drafting statutory language is critical to shaping the conversation about the legislative issue, so I understand why the governor might have requested that. However, as you noted, you are not legislators, so why should you be so tasked?”

He replied, “‘To the extent feasible’ was the part that I was referring to. Fairly read, I don’t think it’s feasible for our lay folks to do it. However, the fact is, we have engaged LRB, through Quinn’s legislative folks, and are on the path for legislation. As to why we were so tasked, not sure I can answer that.”

That’s fine; the LRB staffers are good people—but their job is to ensure that the legal language is technically correct, not to construct the substance of policy. Real bills are written by lawyers for the interest groups that advance them. I don’t mean “influenced by,” I mean actually written by. The interest groups then lobby and start the head count. The LRB will not convince House Speaker Mike Madigan that he should pass an ethics bill.

The last time a serious ethics bill was passed was 1998 (I don’t count the farcical State Officials and Employees Ethics Act of 2003). In 1998, the bill succeeded because reformers who understood the gritty business of writing and lobbying for legislation were behind it. In particular, former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, a shrewd old liberal, and his aide Mike Lawrence got their hands dirty. Barack Obama, then a state senator, falsely claimed credit for enacting the bill, but that’s another story.

The trick was not to gin up “public comment” but to forge a bill that legislative leaders could present to their chambers, where members would be afraid to vote “no” on ethics. The Collins commission did a lot of good, hard work for no pay and probably not enough thanks. That any of their major proposals will get through the General Assembly by the end of the session that ends this month is problematic.

Jim Merriner is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer


  • Dennis Byrne said:

    The reformers need to pay attention to Jim, one of the most savy observers of the Chicago and Illinois political scene. Reform commissions–and I’ve seen many of them–serve as little more than a debating society without the nuts and bolts follow-up. Or look at it this way: without the follow-up, reform commissions have no more impact than op-ed columns.

  • Pat Hickey said:

    ‘Reform is primarily a function of public relations, of turning up the publicity dial. It is not, therefore, a function of actually making the sausage, of getting a damn bill written, sponsored, and passed.’

    ‘What is so often thought, but ne’er so well expressed!’

    Share it, Brother Jim!

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