By HARVEY BERKMAN
Electing Illinois' other executives
'Those politicians and statesmen who have been the most celebrated for the soundness of their principles . . . have declared in favor of a single executive. . . . They have, with great propriety, considered energy as most necessary [to the executive], and have regarded this as most applicable to power in a single hand. *** One of the weightiest objections to a plurality in the executive . . . is that it tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility. [It] is far more safe there should be a single object for the jealousy and watchfulness of the people. "
Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 70.
The founders would not be pleased. Precisely 203 years and 10 days after the first installment of the 85-essay Federalist Papers appeared, Illinoisans will go to the polls to elect their executive branch, six members strong: governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, comptroller, treasurer. The governor, as chief executive, cannot choose his banker or his lawyer. And Illinois is not alone. The nation's states elect 500 executives, not counting their governors.
The founders made strong arguments for why a split executive, which has endured so well, is bad. The legislative branch is geared strongly toward sensitive representation of the people and is meant to be slow to move; the executive branch carries out the commands of the people's representatives and should be able to act with dispatch, which it can do best when one person runs it.
The states, however, developed their multifarious executives slowly, long after the revolution. The evolution could have been easily reversed many times (there was consistent reformist pressure to do so), any time clear negative effects appeared and did not outweigh any benefits conferred.
In 1776, having just loosed the yoke of oppression and wanting power confined, the people had placed nearly all of it in the legislative branch the branch most easily controlled and then put the legislature on a short leash. In most states, lawmakers stood for election annually; in two, they ran every six months. The governors the institutional descendants of the royal appointees who had run the colonies were emasculated. Two states had none at all; in eight they were picked by, and thus beholden to, the legislature. Most served for one year and could not be reelected. One could veto. On the national level, under the Articles of Confederation, there was no executive branch whatsoever; committees of Congress ran everything.
In this unchecked, unbalanced structure, state legislatures ran riot. They blithely abrogated debt (often by the inflationary printing of money), redistributed wealth and ignored Congress's pleas for revenues for the ongoing war. Privately, the founders said the legislatures were filled with "men without reading, experience or principle"; in the Federalist Papers they accused them of "everywhere extending the sphere of [their] activity and drawing all power into [their] impetuous vortex."
These criticisms helped get the nation's Constitution with its radically powerful president adopted. They also prodded the states into revising their own charters, which proved relatively easy to do, as the legislatures had proved plainly incapable of meeting the rapidly changing needs of the states.
The constitutional revisions balanced power. Judges' rulings won more force; governors got longer terms and more authority. Illinois' first constitution, in 1818, gave the governor a term
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of four years, though he could not succeed himself. He won unusually strong appointment powers. A Council of Revision, made up of himself and the Supreme Court, wielded a legislative veto. By Illinois' second constitutional convention, 30 years later, (the state's population had since risen by a factor of 10, to 500,000), its legislature had begun and abandoned a $10 million railroad; banks it had administered had gone bust. Similar experiences in other states kept power flowing from the legislature to the executive, a flow that by 1848 had acquired a popular champion: Andrew Jackson, who trumpeted both a strong executive and widespread suffrage. In a time of national and economic expansion and growing demands on government, these ideas merged in the notion that the heads of many newly created state agencies should be elected by the people. Thus as chief executives won power from legislatures, they lost some control over their own branch. Illinois added three executives to the ballot in 1848 and two more in 1870, in a constitution that stood for a century.
In the early 1900s, two types of administrative reform began: a reduction in the number of executive agencies and a reduction in the number of elected executives. The first type has proved far easier to accomplish than the second. States have routinely cut the number of their commissions and agencies in half, but elective executives have been tenacious. In 1956 the states elected 709 officials (not including governors) to head 385 agencies. Thirty years later those numbers had fallen to 514 and 293. While governors thus gained more power over the executive branch, they gained even more power relative to the legislature: While only half of the chief executives were eligible for four-year terms in 1955, now only three serve terms of two years. More can succeed themselves, more acquired the veto, and many that had the veto have won new veto powers.
At Illinois' 1970 constitutional convention, the committee on the executive article proposed ending the election of the superintendent of public instruction but recommended that six other executives still be elected. Delegate Dawn Clark Netsch (now a state senator running for comptroller) spoke on behalf of the "short ballot" proponents, who wanted to elect as few executives as possible ideally, only the governor. This was a position with which the National Municipal League said "all authorities on executive organization agree," which virtually every "reform" group in Illinois backed, and which academics considered indisputably proper. The executive committee's vote on electing the treasurer had been closest, 6-5, so that was the first office short-ballot proponents took to the floor.
Netsch called the treasurer, responsible for deciding where to invest the state's cash-on-hand, a duplicative office and thus governmentally inefficient; another delegate called it "unnecessary baggage in a modern executive article. . . .The typical treasurer would run a campaign, hire a competent CPA or
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banker, and then proceed to start his campaign for the next office." Proponents of an elected treasurer were more gut-level: "As I have gone up and down this state, the people want to know who is going to be handling their money, and they're going to want this guy elected. . . . You can do something here that you may read out of a book, but you're not listening to the people. . . . This is a people's government, not a political science government."
A majority coalition of Chicago Democrats and downstate conservatives of both parties defeated Netsch, who, with other undeterred short-balloters, tried and tried again.
The comptroller "would go up and down the state pledging to keep a fine set of books and to write the checks with a firm, round hand. Beyond that, I see very little that he could exercise in the way of policy functions."
Having the secretary of state share highway safety duties with the governor requires "complicated coordination of those programs [and occasionally results] in some conflict."
If the delegates wanted to "clip the governor's wings, then they should continue to provide for an elected attorney general, [who] most seriously can interfere with and impinge on the governor's prerogatives in managing the executive branch of government.''
The lieutenant governor is "picked not for his capability, but for his impact on ... the election. . . . The only tool [he needs is] a stethoscope."
Opponents of appointment countered each argument with appeals to democracy, and they won each vote big. The new constitution was written and ratified with only the education superintendent eliminated as an elective executive office. With six such officials (not counting University of Illinois trustees, who are elected statewide), Illinois is now right at the nationwide average. North Dakota's on top, with 11; three states elect just the governor.
The few attempts in recent years in other states to eliminate elected executives have fared no better than the 1970 attempt in Illinois. West Virginia voters declined to make the secretary of state, treasurer and commissioner of agriculture all appointive (though the legislature approved a proposal to consolidate 150 executive boards and agencies into seven new departments). Georgia voters overwhelmingly refused to change the superintendent of education from elective to appointive, and Oklahoma returned its apppointed commissioner of labor back to an elected office.
The quadrennial question once again facing Illinoisans is: Can "We the People" competently pick among 12 competing candidates for six different executive posts, many of which are mostly
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ministerial? Finding campaign issues for executive office candidates other than governor can be hard; the dearth of issues then makes extraneous factors important. While such factors are used by the politial parties to slate "balanced" tickets a Jacksonian effort at representational inclusion by geography, gender and color the parties have not recently been successful in getting their slates elected. Jackson, indeed, intended for the elected executives to belong to one party, to help the split executive branch run smoothly; that, however, has not happened once in Illinois under the current constitution.
Things have nonetheless run relatively well.
Illinois' lieutenant governor, first in line to succeed the governor, has no constitutional duties and thus is unlikely to do much to gum up the works. (In the general election, a vote for governor is an automatic vote for that party's lieutenant governor candidate.) While eight states get by with no lieutenant governor, 25 that have the office pattern it after the U.S. vice president, who presides over the Senate and votes to break ties and thus possesses real power. Illinois' lieutenant governor has acquired some statutory duties through the years (chair of six councils and committees) and a traditional, flexible role of ombudsman. Beyond that, his job is up to his governor, who can expand it or limit it as he sees fit.
Other than the governor, the attorney general is the nation's most frequently elected executive. As the state's legal officer (only the attorney general can represent the state, and the governor's agencies, in court), the general presents the greatest chance for executive head-butting and governmental gridlock. Conflict between the general and the governor is always possible; when the two are of different parties those chances are exacerbated. Democrat Gov. Dan Walker fought repeatedly with Republican Atty. Gen. William J. Scott over control of the lawyers working for state agencies. Republican Gov. James R. Thompson and Democratic Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan, however, after a blow-up in the early 1980s, have had surprisingly few explicit legal conflicts, due partly to both men's apparent personal preference for compromise and for avoiding protracted clashes.
By electing the treasurer and comptroller, Illinois separates the duty of banking the state's money (treasurer) from writing the checks (comptroller) that cover the state's debts which are generally incurred by agencies under the control of the governor. Before 1970, the auditor of public accounts wrote those checks and then did an audit to see that everything was jake. In 1953 voters gave the keys to that countinghouse to a fox; in 1956 Auditor Orville Hodge resigned after stealing $2.5 million. The 1970 Constitution split the post's duties among treasurer, comptroller, and the new office of auditor general, filled by appointment of the legislature. State government has been many things since, but corruption has been admirably rare.
By giving elective executives both visibility and responsibility, Jacksonian democracy provides "a marvelous training ground to develop candidates for governor and U.S. Senate," said Jack Van Der Slik, a Sangamon State University professor of political science. "It's a big step between appointive and elective office. There's A-level ball, then double-A, then triple-A, then they make the majors."
Gary LaPaille, longtime chief of staff to House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and chairman of the Illinois Democratic party, says this "farm system" also provides benefits to the political parties: "The one thing that can put a party into a stall pattern is if you do not have the potential for advancement of people who are energetic and ambitious."
Still, as energetic and ambitious as the politicians may be, "Most voters go into the polls with a very modest knowledge of the candidates running for the less visible posts," said James D. Nowlan, political science professor at Knox College (and 1972 GOP lieutenant governor candidate). "It takes much more work than many of us politicos think to pierce the consciousness of most Illinoisans." Witness the 1986 primary victories over slated Democrats Aurelia Pucinski and George Sangmeister of Janice Hart and Mark Fairchild two acolytes of Lyndon LaRouche.
One way to help catch voters' attention is for candidates seeking even ministerial posts to thoughtfully use the bully pulpits the campaigns give them not to hide behind, but to attempt to educate the citizenry on broader issues. Democrat Pat Quinn, for example, has announced an ambitious legislative agenda that he says addresses serious problems and which bears at least some connection to the treasurer's office he seeks. The ideas themselves may be good or bad, but they are ideas and so they contribute to a more intelligent campaign. In a year in which every elected executive (except Thompson) is running for another executive office, this sort of substantive debate should clearly be the rule, not the exception. If we are going to defy the founders and elect six executives, we should at least base our vote on something more concrete than the sound of a name.
Harvey Berkman covers state government in Springfield for Lee Enterprises.
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