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Reeder: Time may be here for legislative term limits

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

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Updated: October 4, 2013 6:12AM



No matter how bad they are, lawmakers are hard to get rid of.

Last week, we saw Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross, of Oswego, deposed by members of his caucus. Cross, a 30-year legislator, will be replaced by another career lawmaker, Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs), who has served 14 years in the General Assembly.

Sometime next year, House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) will likely set the record for the most years served as the leader of a state legislative chamber in the history of the United States.

Madigan, 71, has been serving in the House for 42 years, longer than some of its members have been alive. And he has been speaker all but two years since 1983.

For decades, reporters, editorial writers and the occasional fawning sycophant have taken to referring to him not just as “The Speaker” but as “The Powerful Speaker.”

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) is the godfather of Madigan’s son and began his career as a political acolyte to Madigan in the House. Cullerton, 64, also is a longtime lawmaker, having served 34 years in the General Assembly.

For years, I personally opposed legislative term limits, arguing that voters have an opportunity to limit politicians’ terms by voting them out in the next election. Unfortunately, that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.

State legislative maps are drawn every decade in such a way to protect incumbents from the majority party, so very few districts are actually in play with contested races. So most lawmakers are elected with nominal or no opposition.

Who draws the legislative maps? You guessed it, the leaders of the party that controls each chamber, who are typically career politicians.

Madigan has been up to his shoulders in the process for decades and is a recognized master of manipulating district maps to enhance Democrats’ chances.

The result of this legislative legerdemain is that voters aren’t choosing their elected officials — elected officials are choosing their voters.

And those few lawmakers who face contested elections can expect campaign cash to flow freely to them from the campaign treasuries of leaders of the Legislature.

Once reaching Springfield, rank-and-file lawmakers will be reminded of who got them there. And the leaders expect their fidelity.

It’s a self-perpetuating system that places career lawmakers in control, punishes political independence and leaves voters with fewer choices.

It’s also the system that has saddled Illinois with astronomical debt and a growing tax burden. That’s a byproduct of politicians caring more about their political future than what is best for the state.

So how do we break out of this cycle?

The best way is to push against the status quo and seek term limits for all legislators.

There are rumblings that soon there will be a petition drive to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2014 to establish term limits.

The measure is being pushed primarily by Bruce Rauner, a wealthy venture capitalist who’s a candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. He has formed a political action committee to promote a referendum campaign.

But the concept of term limits appears to have broad support. It’s an issue also championed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

The concept of term limits is an idea worthy of exploration.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.



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