By Jamey Dunn
While supporters of controversial legislation dealing with gun control, pension reform and same sex marriage had little luck during the recent lame-duck session, one legislator is pushing to make it more difficult to get bills passed in the weeks before a new General Assembly is sworn in.
Sponsors of legislation have until March 31 each year to pass bills with a simple majority. After that date, they must find a three-fifths majority in each chamber if they want their bill to go into effect within a year. Bills that pass with a simple majority cannot take effect until June 1 of the next year.
However, legislative leaders often call lawmakers into session for a few days or weeks before a new General Assembly is to be seated. Because that happens in January, the clock has been reset, but the new legislative session has not yet started. That allows legislators who are not returning in the new General Assembly, known as lame ducks, and lawmakers who have just won reelection and have a few years until they face another election to vote on proposals that are often controversial. That legislation also does not have to wait a year before taking effect. The time is informally called the lame-duck session.
This year’s lame-duck session was not particularly productive. But in January 2011, the General Assembly voted to increase income taxes on individuals and businesses and end the death penalty in Illinois.
“Every two years there seems to be more activity in a short amount of time in the first week of January than there is in the true session,” said Rep. Jim Durkin, who filed House Bill 195 today. The proposal would require a three-fifths majority for bills passed in January before a new legislature is sworn in. Durkin said the measure closes a “loophole” that has been used by for years to ram bills through the process at the end of the two-year legislative session.
Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, said that the problem with the lame-duck session is that lawmakers leaving office might be less influenced by the desires of their constituents. They also might be concerned about their future employment after they are no longer serving in the legislature. Many lawmakers go on to lobby their former colleagues on behalf of influential interests and industries such as utility companies and charitable organizations. “These two factors, a lower standard [for the passage of bills] and decreased constituent accountability, play into the appeal of using the lame-duck session as a way to move otherwise highly controversial legislation,” Durkin said. “Are there things I would like to see pass? Of course; however, I feel strongly that these proposals should be properly vetted through the legislative process.”
Durkin said he thinks the lame-duck session also adds to the temptation to put off difficult votes. “It’s the summer, and people are saying, ‘We will take care of [that] in the lame-duck session.’”
Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the practice of looking to the lame-duck session to as a time to pass big bills is a relatively new one. He said it started when the legislature's fall veto session began to expand to include more than just the governor’s vetoes. “When they wrote the 1970 Constitution, they assumed that we’d come back for a couple weeks and do some vetoes and go home. They couldn’t imagine the fall legislative session, which it has morphed into,” he said. “It was exceedingly rare in the '70s and '80s to do anything in veto session other than vetoes. I mean it happened, but generally the legislature came back a day ahead of time [before the swearing in of new lawmakers] and might clean up a little bit of ceremonial stuff in January.” Redfield said legislative action from the veto session started to spill over into January, and now the lame-duck session, which usually takes place over several days in January every two years, has become a fixture.
Redfield said now that legislative leaders have the lame-duck session as an option, it would be hard to turn back the clock. “It’s been way too useful a mechanism in previous General Assemblies. We’ve gotten pretty used to that possibility sitting there,” he said. “I think strategically, you don’t give anything away when you are in the majority.”
Durkin noted that Republicans have taken advantage of the lame-duck session when they held majorities, too. Durkin, who took office in 1995, said that after then-House Speaker Lee Daniels lost his Republican majority, he used the lame-duck session to pass bills before the new Democratic majority was seated. “And I’m sure I voted for a few of those things,” Durkin said. However, he said that Illinois now faces a public opinion crisis along with its fiscal one. “The public’s perception of legislative process is horrible, and at some point we need to be honest with ourselves and our constituents about what we are doing.”