How to Hold a Legislative Leader Accountable

I live in Illinois, the worst governed state of the union. And the consequences have been severe. Our fiscal position is the last in the union and we are at the bottom for ease of doing business. Thus, in the current state of taxation and regulation, there is no prospect of climbing out of the fiscal hole. And unless there is radical reform, Illinois is in terminal decline. It does not have California’s climate or New York’s Stock Exchange to break its fall.

There is bipartisan blame to go around. Governors of both parties for decades have been willing to sign legislation to provide unfunded pensions whose bills would come due when they were safely in retirement. Politicians of both parties have all declined to take on public sector unions and other special interest groups that have made the state uncompetitive. But even if fault must be laid at the door of both Democrats and Republicans, there has been one man who has been the power in Illinois politics for three decades and thus must be held most accountable—Michael Madigan, the Democratic speaker of the House for all but two years since 1983.

The accumulation of immense power in one legislative leader is a practical problem for democratic accountability in  a system of separation of powers. Most citizens are rationally ignorant of government. They may know the name of the governor, who is a focus of the news, but many fewer will know of the name of a legislative leader. And unless they live in his district, citizens will have no direct opportunity to vote on his continued tenure. And Speaker Madigan has used the power of gerrymandering to make it less likely that his party will lose its majority in Springfield. And given that other political actors, regardless of party, recognize the impossibility of dislodging him, they become his enablers.

There is only one possibility of dislodging such a political power—electing a politician who is willing to cause a crisis that will shock the public into recognizing the plight of their polity and holding the legislative leader accountable. And that is what is happening in Illinois today. Bruce Rauner used his very substantial wealth to be elected governor and is beholden to no one. And in this first year in office he is refusing to raise taxes even at the cost of a government shutdown, unless they legislature makes reforms to its pension structure and enacts various pro-growth measures.

The crisis has no doubt has gotten the public’s attention. And it has forced Madigan into a very public duel with Rauner, bringing home to citizens the identity of the man who wants to continue the spending, borrowing, taxing and regulatory policies that have brought Illinois to its knees. To be sure, even this stratagem may fail. Illinois voters have themselves been complicit in misgovernment, electing two recent governors who have gone to jail for corruption. But there is no better alternative.

In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli recommended that the government be structured so that its contending elements come periodically into sharp conflict so that the nation would be forced back to first principles, thereby scrubbing away the grime accumulated by parochial priorities and petty events. In his Histories of Florence he provides a powerful metaphor for this political ablution — fires burning away the pestilential air of the swamps in order to permit men to live together in that greatest of all Renaissance cities. The showdown between Rauner and Madigan provides such an opportunity for political cleansing.