In state legislative politics, your word is supposed to be your bond, but that doesn't always happen. Illinois legislators will often tell one person one thing and tell another something completely different. Rank and file legislators aren't completely trustworthy.
Legislative leaders, on the other hand, are supposed to be different, particularly when it comes to promises they make to each other. The Senate President, House Speaker and the two minority leaders share an historic bond that is never breached.
By tradition, when the four leaders come to an agreement the pact is considered almost holy writ. They are all obligated to do everything they possibly can to implement their agreement. That trust is absolutely crucial to getting anything done at the Statehouse. When leaders make a bargain, it's almost always about large, important and politically delicate matters. And nobody can remember a time when those vows have ever been broken.
Until last week, that is.
This legislative session has been a year of firsts in Springfield. It's been the longest overtime session in modern Illinois history and has showcased some of the nastiest fights ever between the governor and some of the legislative leaders. We've had open talk of the governor's impeachment on the House floor and legislators have publicly questioned the governor's sanity and mocked his mental acuity.
So, I guess it should come as no surprise that this is also the first year anyone can remember when the four leaders' agreement on the budget deal was broken.
Last week, Senate President Emil Jones took the extraordinary step of announcing that he wouldn't follow through on his pledge to enact the state budget that he negotiated with the other leaders. This was the first year since Jim Thompson was governor that the leaders did the budget on their own, without the governor's input.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich objected to parts of the leaders' budget, mainly because they didn't include funding for his health care initiatives. So, last week he announced that he would veto out all the legislative "pork" from the budget and use his executive authority to add $500 million in new spending for health care programs. The Constitution forbids that sort of thing, but he didn't really mean it that way anyway, and, besides, that's another story.
Everybody expected Blagojevich to veto out parts of the bill, but since the leaders had all agreed to support the budget there was no doubt that all of his vetoes would be swiftly overridden.
The big surprise came when Sen. Jones stood with the governor at that announcement and announced that he wouldn't allow any overrides to pass the Senate. Without Jones' cooperation, the budget will be implemented exactly the way the governor wants over the objections of the other legislative leaders.
The shock is still reverberating through Springfield, despite Jones' attempts to explain his unprecedented move.
Jones claims that House Speaker Michael Madigan interfered with his agreement with the two Republican leaders to pass a multibillion dollar bond plan for the state's aging infrastructure. Others suspect darker motives for Jones' action, pointing to his family's financial success under Gov. Blagojevich's administration.
Jones claimed last week during an angry tirade that Madigan telephoned Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson during a Republican caucus meeting just before a series of votes on the infrastructure package. Jones charged that Madigan convinced Watson to pull votes off the measures. Watson's caucus did indeed vote "Present" on the first of the capital spending bills - a proposal on bond authorization - depriving the measure of the 36 votes needed for passage. Watson's spokesperson flatly denied that Madigan had anything to do with the vote.
But even if Jones is right, his explanation is less than satisfying, to say the least.
Madigan was not a direct party to those capital project talks and was therefore under no obligation to abide by any agreement. In other words, he was free to interfere. Unlike Jones and the budget, Madigan never gave his word.
"I don't see how we can do anything here now that we can't trust another leader's word," said a top legislative official last week.
That's exactly right. There are still some big issues to be resolved this summer, including what to do about the mass transit crisis in Chicago and the suburbs. If the other leaders can't trust Jones, then nothing will happen.
I'm not sure how Jones ever repairs this damage. His reputation is probably forever tarnished.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com