EYE ON ILLINOIS: Evenly split committees increasingly unlikely to result in anything but deadlock

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Four months, three meetings and nothing of substance.

That’s the unfortunate summary for the House Special Investigating Committee exploring House Speaker Michael Madigan’s role in a Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal, which concluded its business Monday afternoon by doing effectively nothing.

Capitol News Illinois described the final, three-hour hearing as a “combative session” in which three House Republicans and three Democrats clashed repeatedly over the rules of procedure, disagreed about the facts contained in the federal court documents and levied accusations of political stunts and a “kangaroo court.”

The only thing more frustrating than the outcome is the inevitability. The committee was doomed from the start, when House Minority Leader Jim Durkin filed a petition to create the body, because the House rules provide for an inherently partisan process all but certain to end in deadlock absent overwhelming incriminating evidence.

Even if the committee’s work had somehow resulted in at least one Democrat siding with the Republicans, that would merely have advanced proceedings to a new 12-member disciplinary panel where, again, the potential for stalemate loomed. In the slim chance real penalties resulted, it’s unlikely they’d have any bearing on Madigan beyond the end of the current legislative session — a session that, due to the fact the governor has chosen to manage the pandemic largely without lawmaker input, has required as little from the speaker as any time in the state’s history.

In other words, no matter how plausible the theory that Madigan recommended people for jobs as part of a mutually beneficial backroom relationship with ComEd that resulted in legislation quite favorable to the multibillion dollar utility, this committee was never the best way to hold him to account for that role.

I count myself among the foolishly optimistic, writing in September that “a fair, public investigation could represent dramatic evolution in a perpetually corrupt state.” We’ll have to leave those hopes for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which isn’t done racking up indictments and plea deals, and instead offer suggestions to the lawmakers engaged in ethics reform proposals: prepare tie-vote contingencies.

The idea of ideologically balanced committees and commissions is well intentioned, but as Illinoisans have seen repeatedly, impasse is inescapable. In some cases, such as the Illinois State Board of Elections’ inability to penalize people groups like the campaign committee of current Auditor General Frank Mautino, the matter can eventually bounce to the judicial branch. The Madigan committee’s work is just plain over. In both instances, a codified partisan divide signified a standoff from the outset.

Wrongdoing must be investigated. But with preordained outcomes, these committees do more harm than good. It’s increasingly difficult to construct anything nonpartisan, yet it’s clear politicians won’t effectively investigate other politicians. So who will?

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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December 16, 2020 at 06:17AM

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