Monday, May 25, 2009

Personal Aside: O, Sweet Irony—Thus Far, Quinn Foiled by His Own “Reform”…The “Cutback Amendment” He Pushed in 1980.

Remember the “Coalition for Political Honesty”?

Thus far, Gov. Patrick Quinn has been unable to get much of his program through the legislature…especially his income tax hike and ethics package. And the reason is—at least up to now—that the state House, while solidly Democratic, is not disposed to pass much of either. Reason: While the House is composed of 70 Dems to 48 Republicans, its leadership is held tightly in the fist of Speaker Michael Madigan. There are many reasons why the Dems of the House are contrary but foremost is that they are run totally by Madigan who has a personal interest in seeing that Quinn does not make a good record as governor: Madigan’s step-daughter Lisa will almost certainly challenge Quinn for the governorship.

But Madigan would not have such a strangle-hold over the House if in 1980 Illinois voters hadn’t passed what was known as the “Cutback Amendment.” Up to then the House was divided into 59 legislative districts, each of which had 3 representatives. It was a product of post-Civil War days when there were concerns that the political minority would be overwhelmed by the majority—so to ameliorate the situation there was constituted a modified form of cumulative voting. Each voter was given three legislative votes to cast and could cast either one vote each for three candidates or three votes for one candidate—known as a “bullet vote” or ½ votes each for two candidates.

The unique 3-member-per-district House was adopted with the Illinois state constitution in 1870. The intention—to reduce the divisive effects of partisan wrangling by virtually guaranteeing minority party representation in all districts—was accomplished and lasted until 1980. The practical effect in almost every district was to allow one minority party legislator to serve. For example in most heavily Democratic legislative districts, say in Chicago, two Democrats were elected and one Republican. But the Republican was usually an independent and not under regular party discipline…so the Republican could more easily vote his or her conscience. And then in most heavily Republican or downstate districts, the normal outcome would be two Republicans and one independent Democrat, with that Democrat able to vote the way he or she really felt, secure from Democratic discipline.

The irony is that in 1980 there came along in Chicago a liberal “reform” hustler who was a genius at grabbing headlines and TV face-time with a grassroots movement called “The Coalition for Political Honesty.” The head of the Coalition was one who preached consumer reform ala Ralph Nader but also political “reform.” And the political “reform” he hustled was to “cut back the size of the state House” from 177 members to 118 by eliminating 3-member districts. The “reform” hustler was 32-year-old Pat Quinn who with his brother ran the letterhead group composed of mailing lists—purportedly “grassroots”--that capitalized on the whims of idealistic journalists and high-minded liberals plus some instinctive conservatives who felt that by cutting the number of House lawmakers from 177 to 118 you’d get some “economy.”

My instinct as a government relations veep for The Quaker Oats Company…but also as chairman of an election watchdog organization in Chicago known as “Project LEAP” which was anti-machine politics…was to oppose the Cutback Amendment because I thought sure that it would serve not the ends of “reform” but tighten the grip of the two parties so that independents couldn’t breathe.

True, as with all things, the 3-member plan didn’t always work to my or conservatives’ satisfaction. It was a boon to liberals. As history shows, Republican Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie was determined to emulate Nelson Rockefeller and build a big government for which he needed to pass an income tax. He was joined by so-called conservative Russ Arrington who was a big government practitioner. They passed the state income tax—even with much of the grassroots philosophy of my party opposed to bigger government and income tax funding-- thanks to the device...and onus for the income tax killed Ogilvie’s political career and delivered the legislature to the Democrats. Ogilvie could not have gotten the bill passed without the aid of inner-city Republicans. The GOP House voted for the income tax 91 to 73 (69 Republicans, most from Dem sectors and 22 Democrats, most for GOP sectors voted for it; 25 Republicans and 48 Dems, including Clyde Choate the Dem House leader voted against, as did for example Alan Dixon). The Dems used the onus for voting in the income tax to beat Ogilvie for reelection and to elect a Democratic majority.

Notwithstanding that favorable result for liberals…and actually because of it…Quinn bamboozled many Republican and middle-of-the-road voters to ditch the 3-member districts on a bogus issue that it would save taxpayer money. That it would speed diversity. That it would increase two-party competition. Hah!

The result: incumbents were favored, newcomers had a tougher time getting elected. Quinn maintained that “this complicated and collusive election system is consciously designed to protect incumbents and limit political competition and accountability.” The exact opposite happened. As result of Quinn’s ill-considered “reform,” incumbents were rewarded and newcomers had a tougher time getting elected. Both parties in the House became insulated from independent thought and the House became a pawn of a small group of majority people: Madigan, Flynn Currie, et al. In essence it spurred the Big 4 power bloc: Speaker, House minority leader; Senate President, Senate minority leader…with many of the other members calling themselves “mushrooms,” larded with party fertilizer and kept in the dark.

And of course, fittingly, his misguided “reform”…which was designed only for his short-term political benefit… has come back to bite Quinn—now governor. Had the old 3-member system prevailed…the one he killed…he would not be hogtied by a opaque, laconic, arrogant, savagely partisan and self-consumed Speaker who wants nothing more than to help his step-daughter. So Madigan should feel grateful to Quinn for changing the rules so that he—Madigan—became Czar Madigan…and Quinn should he gnawing his knuckles in frustration that he did this to himself.

For now, we conservatives should be happy that the Quinn “reform” may short-circuit his tax hike…but that’s incidental. As with all other things, Quinn’s promises never bore fruit. In the campaign of 1980 he said the new system would immeasurably simplify things, cutting down the number of bills introduced. Not so. In the four general assemblies preceding the Cutback, an average of 3,512 bills were introduced. By 1987-88 just a few years following Cutback, 4,311 bills were introduced. And the number has spiraled yearly since.

Nor has the House workload declined as Quinn said it would. In 1979-80 20 bills per member were introduced. In 1987-88 it was 28 bills per member. Much higher now. And concerning electoral competition? The state House has taken on the character of the U.S. House regarding incumbent protection. In 1984, 95% of House incumbents were reelected; in 1988 it was at 98%. From 1984 to 1990, 426 incumbents ran and 414 were reelected (97%) compared with incumbent reelection of 95% in the three elections before the Cutback.

Nor did the Cutback did not save money as Quinn prophesied. These statistics are taken from the articles “The Cutback Amendment and Diversity in the House” by Robert B. Schaller in “Illinois Issues” magazine for December, 1990 and “The Cutback at 10” in July, 1991 by David Everson, professor of Political Studies at Sangamon State.

We can’t and won’t go back to the old days but--. Obviously as old liberal hustler now unelected Governor Pat Quinn could testify if he ever leveled…which he doesn’t… things have gotten a lot worse since then.

The paradoxical summary: Conservatives can thank liberal Quinn for imposing a strait-jacket on the House which delivered the power to Czar Madigan so that the income tax hike…to the specifications set by Quinn…won’t make it—all to make Madigan’s stepdaughter look good in 2010.

Liberals can curse liberal Quinn for knocking out the 3-member district so that the income tax hike he wants will certainly not make it.

But all the same, apart from these short-range temporary disadvantages due to faulty gubernatorial leadership and not change in the system, the 3-member district system would have immeasurably aided independence within the two parties instead of the regimentation and stultified system we have now: for which we can thank Pat Quinn.

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