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Springfield’s dubious trip back in time

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan  speaks reporters after meeting with Gov. PQuinn Illinois Senate President John Cullert Monday June

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, speaks to reporters after a meeting with Gov. Pat Quinn, and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, Monday, June 10, 2013, in Chicago where they discussed how to solve the state's nearly $100 billion pension crisis. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Updated: July 20, 2013 6:58AM

Gov. Pat Quinn must have been hanging out in the Hot Tub Time Machine again.

I’m not sure how else to explain Quinn’s brainstorm of convincing Democratic legislative leaders to reach into their Golden Oldies bag of procedural tricks to try to resolve the pension funding impasse.

Joint House-Senate conference committees, such as the one Quinn wants convened to end the stalemate between House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, were once the norm in Springfield.

“For decades this was the standard way the House and Senate would resolve their differences,” explained Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Before he joined the academic world, Wheeler was the Sun-Times’ highly respected legislative reporter and taught me most of what I once knew about how conference committees work, which may be why the whole business struck both of us as kind of funny.

In those days, conference committees were a routine but often controversial practice, used dozens of times in any legislative session to handle matters both large and small, Wheeler noted.

The controversy stemmed from the fact that conference committees were ripe for mischief-making.

Usually, conferees met in secret, if they met at all. It was common for lobbyists to not only draft the conference committee’s report but then also circulate the report among its members to collect the required signatures for approval.

In this manner, a bill to increase the state speed limit could land on legislators’ desks for a vote at the 11th hour—magically transformed via conference committee report into an earmark-laden road-building program.

While that sort of change would never escape everyone’s attention, it was common for more obscure changes to emerge unnoticed in this same manner and “quietly” become law — sometimes by mistake, more often intentionally. You’ll notice that we reporters always talk about something “quietly” becoming law when we failed to catch it at the time.

The death knell for conference committees, I’m told, may have come when, in the midst of the Legislature abolishing “study commissions” that served as little more than patronage havens, a particularly crafty legislator slipped through a conference report creating three new study commissions.

As hard as it may be for some to believe, Madigan’s move to eliminate conference committees some 15-20 years ago was generally regarded as a significant procedural reform.

Of course, as with many such reforms, this one suited Madigan’s purpose of maintaining tighter control over all legislation moving through the House.

I’m not suggesting anything untoward about the pension conference committee that Quinn suggested and that Democratic leaders now say they will move to create during Wednesday’s special session of the Legislature.

Obviously, this is not a situation where any changes to the legislation will go unobserved, given the attention the pension problem is receiving.

For one thing, I don’t see how the conference committee can avoid meeting in public, although I am baffled as to how legislators in a public setting can work through differences Madigan and Cullerton haven’t been able to resolve in private.

The bottom line remains there can be no solution until those two are on the same page and ready to make it happen.

For Quinn, there is a measure of face-saving in creating the conference committee in that Wednesday’s special session will appear slightly less futile than the one he called last year to resolve the same problem. But only slightly. It just takes a voice vote in each chamber to send the matter to a conference committee, so there was no real necessity in bringing everybody back to Springfield.

Just the same, I hope it works. Maybe this will open up a new avenue for somebody to compromise, although I don’t know anybody besides the governor who is optimistic that it will.

When they ended the practice of using conference committees, legislative leaders achieved the same ends by privately working out agreed amendments to bills where differences existed between the chambers. But they left in place the rules that allow conference committees to be used — and on rare occasions they have been.

“We have a lot more transparency than we did in those days,” observed another veteran of many conference committee reports. “The results are no different. The leaders still control the process, and they always will.”

On that, you can depend.

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