Was this Nebraska?
By CHARLES N. WHEELER III
John Linebaugh Knuppel almost got his wish. As a delegate to the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention back in 1970, the Petersburg lawyer proposed that Illinois should adopt a unicameral legislature, a la Nebraska. Although the notion was politely dismissed by fellow delegates back then, Knuppel's pipe dream came true earlier this spring, as a political power struggle paralyzed the Senate for almost a month.
The stalemate was created when two Chicago Democrats, Sen. Frank D. Savickas smarting from losing his leadership spot and Sen. Jeremiah E. Joyce, signed on with the Senate's 28 Republicans to call for a series of changes designed to weaken the Democrats' grip on the Senate.
The allegiance of the Democratic duo, won after months of careful courting, gave Senate Minority Leader James "Pate" Philip (R-23, Wood Dale) a working majority of 30 votes, good enough to do almost everything one might wish. Everything, that is, but reverse the parliamentary rulings which enabled beleaguered Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park) to stave off the GOP coup attempt.
Under Senate rules, 36 votes are needed to overrule the chair, so while the "Sturdy Thirty," as the insurgents came to be known, could prevent the full Senate from doing anything, they could not force a vote on their program, either.
Meanwhile, Senate committees met, but Republicans boycotted the hearings, and bills voted out by Democratic attendees subsequently were sent to a parliamentary Twilight Zone by the 30-vote coalition.
Throughout the four-week standoff, buzzwords like "fairness" and "open government" and "reform" abounded. While some gullible types may have believed that was what the fuss was all about, wiser hands recognized a power grab when they saw it, and indeed, in the hardball politics of the Land of Lincoln, saw nothing wrong with the Republican gambit. After all, didn't the GOP spend literally millions of dollars in the last election to win a couple of extra Senate seats? So why begrudge Philip and his strategists for trying to pick them up on the cheap when opportunity, in the form of Savickas and Joyce, knocked?
Republicans steadfastly maintained they did not wish to strip the gavel from Rock's hands. But the rules changes they sough certainly would have muted its rap, particularly the proposal to require only a simple majority, instead of three-fifths, to overrule the chair.
Perhaps the most controversial demand from the GOP coalition was to install Savickas as chairman of the Senate Appropriations I Committee, replacing its longtime czar, Sen. Howard W. Carroll (D-1, Chicago). High in the indictment against Carroll, the 50th Ward Democratic committeeman, was the charge that he used his powerful post to gasp! leverage patronage jobs for his political allies. That revelation, of course, was taken in stride by most students of political custom in Illinois, where a letter from one's Republican county chairman is as important as one's Social Security number in applying for a state job.
In the end, the Republicans got neither of their high-profile demands the three-fifths rule remained intact, as it has for decades under Democrats and Republicans alike, and Carroll continued as perhaps the Senate's most influential budget-shaper, a role largely reflecting his undisputed expertise in the area.
Indeed, the day after the deal was struck that put the Senate back in business, an un abashed Carroll called a press conference to accuse Gov. James R. Thompson of sitting on $653 million in general funds that should be used for education and other critical needs. He even suggested the Senate snit may have been intended to allow the governor's department heads to avoid his committee's queries about the balances!
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Carroll, of course, knows full well that only brazen demagoguery or monumental ignorance would lead one to say any day's available balance can be spent to the last penny. In fact, under questioning from reporters, he acknowledged as much, lowering his estimate of extra money to a plausible figure. Thus Carroll's performance could be seen as proof that he regards his status as relatively unscathed.
So what were the rewards for the militants? The most obvious went to Savickas, who returned to the Democratic leadership in a post newly created for him; Joyce presumably was satisfied just to see Savickas happy.
Republicans, too, picked up another leadership post, a plum usually coveted not for its prestige but for its attendant $6,584-a-year bonus. And they won an additional spot on each of the Senate's standing committees except Carroll's budget panel, where two Republicans and Savickas were added, a ratio that could give the GOP the upper hand on appropriations.
Some actual reform might have slipped in as well, embodied in Senate rules changes intended to rein in the anything-goes approach to conference committees. Henceforward, conference reports in the Senate, at least must stick to the specific differences between the chambers (unless a special dispensation is obtained from the Rules Committee), and senators will have at least a day to study them before they are considered.
Those changes could do much to remedy one of the most blatant abuses of the legislative process, the conference committee report that introduces a brand-new bill to be passed and sent winging to the governor before the public can catch its breath. The obvious loophole, of course, is that anytime the leadership decides, the rules can be suspended and it's back to business as usual.
And what would Knuppel, who died a few years ago, have thought of Illinois' brief fling at a one-chamber legislature? Chances are the irascible Democrat, who a decade ago threw soup on a couple of his maverick party-mates under similar circumstances, would have invited Savickas and Joyce to step out in the Rotunda to settle the matter. Now that would have been a heckuva show.
Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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