Of Soybeans and Special Interests

soybeans-2039641_1280.jpgThe legislative session is in full swing in Springfield. The House was in session last week, while the Senate is in session this week. In the House, tempers are flaring due to lack of movement on a budget: the Democrats are blaming Governor Rauner for the budget impasse, while the Republicans are blaming Speaker Mike Madigan for refusing to hold hearings and consider reforms and spending bills.

Since budget bills aren’t being allowed for hearing, folks are moving their other bills through the typical committee and floor process. This is what I call “regular order,” where we consider bills that, while there may be differences of opinion, any differences are less about Democrats vs. Republicans and more about interest group disagreements or regional differences. If “regular order” is working, that means we’re observing a basic level of courtesy, and lines of communication are open among the representatives—lines that will have to be open, if we’re to do any serious work on a budget.

But even if the partisan divides aren’t as active on the bills moving right now, the special interests in Springfield are working overtime to protect their turf.

One recent example is a bill from Rep. Mark Batinick of Plainfield, to eliminate the state government’s “soybean ink mandate.” In his research on higher education costs in Illinois, Rep. Batinick learned that our state has a unique mandate that every agency, including all of our universities, must use soybean-based ink in all printing. About twenty years ago, the General Assembly imposed this mandate to help the young and growing soybean ink market, in hopes of helping Illinois’ soybean farmers sell more soybeans.

Today, however, the soybean ink market is well-established and is regularly used by newspapers and other more traditional printing presses. And in the two decades since the mandate was imposed, digital printing has taken off—but soybean ink is incompatible with this new technology. This means, for instance, that a university or government agency faced with a small print job that would call for digital printing instead couldn’t use that technology. Even for traditional large print jobs, there are times when soybean ink is more expensive or less appropriate. All the extra cost of mandating soybean ink comes directly out of your pocket.

This mandate means that our universities alone are paying at least $1 million more per year than they should for printing. Across the entire Illinois government, the cost would presumably be many multiples of that.

You’d figure that a bill to end the soybean ink mandate would be easy to support, especially during a time of grave fiscal crisis for our state government. But, unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

It turns out, the soybean farmers have a powerful group of lobbyists in Springfield, and they have so far successfully stalled Rep. Batinick’s bill. Again, this is not a partisan issue—representatives on both sides of the aisle are vigorously fighting against this small, simple reform. (I’ve signed on as a cosponsor of Rep. Batinick’s bill, to help him end this costly and unnecessary mandate.)

There are two lessons I would offer from this example, just one of many reform bills now pending in the General Assembly. First, the negative one: even now, in the midst of the worst fiscal crisis in our state’s history, pushing even the smallest reform through the General Assembly requires a herculean effort. Second, the positive one: despite the despair so many have about Illinois and its future, folks like Rep. Batinick are in the General Assembly, willing to take on these challenges to beat back the special interest groups, so that we reach the hopeful and bright future that Illinois deserves.

As tough as things are now, that sort of optimistic and determined spirit can and must win out.

Budget Negotiations are High Stakes Game of Poker

play-593207_1280.jpgThis week brings the governor’s annual budget address. As well, the Illinois Senate is expected to continue negotiating a “grand compromise,” which would tie together spending, reforms, and revenue into one package. Every day at the Capitol, new rumors spread about the contours of possible solutions to the state budget crisis.

Folks are glad that the senators are talking and trying to work together, but the word on the House floor is that Speaker Mike Madigan has made it clear that, no matter what the Senate does, any agreement is dead-on-arrival in Madigan’s House. You see, the big fight is still Governor Bruce Rauner vs. House Speaker Michael Madigan, and the belief in the Madigan camp is that any budget compromise will be seen as a “win” for the governor. On the policy level, Rauner has said he won’t agree to tax increases without major government and business reforms, while Madigan has made it clear he wants tax and spending increases with no preconditions.

The other complicating factor is that the roughly 80 court orders and consent decrees keeping the state government operating are forcing us to spend billions of dollars more than we take in. That overspending is adding to the pile of unpaid bills being racked up every month. And just a few weeks ago, Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a motion to reverse and eliminate the court order continuing wage payments to Illinois government workers. State workers have been paid under that court order for over a year and a half, but Attorney General Madigan stated she filed the motion just now to give the budget negotiations some “momentum.”

Now, one could applaud an action like this as “fiscally responsible,” and one would also typically believe in the purity of the motives of a state’s chief legal officer. The problem is, instead of filing this motion in each of the 80 courtrooms where these orders are pending—whether to end the orders or at least reduce the required payments to an affordable level—Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed in just 1 courtroom, leaving the other 79 orders and consent decrees in place. It doesn’t make sense as a financial or legal matter.

I’ve not seen any other media sources opine on this issue, but the reasoning seems simple enough to me: most state workers live in downstate districts, now represented by Republicans. Lisa Madigan’s actions make perfect political sense in that they increase pressure solely on Republican legislators, in hopes of weakening Governor Rauner’s ability to obtain reforms, while strengthening Mike Madigan’s ability to force tax and spending increases.

This is a high-stakes game of poker. The Madigan family has millions of dollars in campaign contributions at stake, from special interests and their lobbyists. Every one of those taxes and spending items being pushed by Mike Madigan has lobbyists dedicated to increasing them. However, Illinois taxpayers trying to eke out a living, and small businesses struggling to survive and grow, have only their elected officials to hold taxes and spending in line.

From my end, I’m advocating for two key items. First, we should immediately pay off our $11 billion in unpaid bills. By law, we’re forced to pay 12% interest on those bills—that means we’re flushing roughly $500 million down the toilet in short-term interest every year. There are plenty of ways to generate the necessary funds to pay down those bills, from issuing bonds to selling state assets. Second, we should immediately approve spending for the amount of money we have coming in, so that we stop all, or almost all, of the court orders and consent decrees which are causing our pile of bills to grow. Based on our best estimates, we are bringing in roughly $33 billion per year. By at least approving spending at that level, we can ensure that our social service providers and community colleges get immediate payment, of at least most of the funds they need, instead of continuing to suffer massive cuts and lengthy payment delays.

With a spending backstop in place, the legislature and governor could then take the time they need from now to the end of May to negotiate a full package of appropriate reforms, spending reductions, and revenues to move our state government and economy forward for the longer term. And, we will avoid the kind of gotcha games that are going on now, where state workers or other disfavored groups or programs get targeted in court, while unpaid bills pile up and residents and businesses are harmed even more deeply.

They Get Crystal Clocks...You Get Your Clock Cleaned

dollar-499481_1280.jpgThe governor delivered the annual “State of the State” address this past week, and he struck an optimistic and conciliatory tone in the speech. I hope folks on both sides heard his words and will take them to heart.

Unfortunately, the governor’s speech came one day after a colossal fight on the floor of the Illinois House over its “Rules,” which will govern the operation of the House for the next two years. Everything from how bills are considered to what committees will exist are in the “Rules.”

A study was done recently showing that, under Speaker Michael Madigan, our Illinois House Rules have become the most undemocratic in the country. Madigan’s Rules regularly prevent thousands of bills from being considered by the representatives, whether in committee or on the floor, with no true right of appeal. You could have 60 co-sponsors for a bill—over half the House, enough to pass the bill—but it still can’t even get a committee hearing if Madigan doesn’t bless it. Madigan’s Rules were also panned by the study, because of the total control they give him over who serves as a committee chairman—a position that comes with an immediate $10,000 raise for the representatives whom the Speaker chooses to elevate. And, Madigan has absolute power over when a particular bill is called, so we never know when measures will be brought to the floor. There have been times over the past two years where we’ve been given, literally, about 30 seconds to consider a bill and then vote on it.

Now, you’d figure that, in the wake of a study like this, there would at least be a feint at reform of the Rules. Instead, Madigan proposed even more draconian Rules (which I hadn’t thought possible) for the historic 100th General Assembly. We will go into our 200th anniversary as a state with a set of House Rules that the founders of Illinois wouldn’t recognize as fitting for a free people. You deserve better!

I wanted to give you an update after my last op ed about the re-election of Michael Madigan as our House Speaker in mid-January. I’d mentioned that one Democrat voted “present.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but just last week, the results of that vote came to light. The member was stripped of his committee chairmanship, which means an immediate pay cut of $10,000, and despite being a former federal prosecutor, he was tossed off the Judiciary-Criminal Committee, where he had previously served with distinction.

But it gets better. It turns out, after the vote, Speaker Madigan gave each Illinois Democrat Representative an exquisite crystal clock, engraved on the back with the inscription, “The Honorable Michael J. Madigan. Longest serving Speaker of a state House of Representatives in United States history.” Well, everyone got a clock but our unfortunate “present” voter, who took to Facebook to complain about the snub.

The Democrats elect the most despised political figure in the state to run the Illinois House. They vote in a set of Rules that would make Vladimir Putin blush. And the lone Democrat who voted “present” complains that he didn’t get his engraved crystal clock.

Only in Illinois!

We all know this has to stop. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s time to come together and fix this mess.

Rep. Breen Files Bill to Stop Installation of Red Light Cameras at Oak Brook Mall

Ban red camsIn response to a recent Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) decision to allow the Village of Oakbrook Terrace to place a red light camera at the entrance of Oak Brook Center Mall at 22nd Street and Route 83, State Representative Peter Breen (R-Lombard) filed legislation today that would reverse the decision and prohibit a red light camera at that intersection. House Bill 506 is chief co-sponsored by Representatives Patti Bellock (R-Hinsdale), Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park), and David Olsen (R-Downers Grove).

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Rising to the Challenge

start-1414148_1280.jpg“Michael J. Madigan” … “Michael J. Madigan” … “Michael J. Madigan”

It’s one of the most nerve-wracking moments of Inauguration Day: you’re sworn in with 117 other Representatives and, immediately thereafter—on a stage in front of thousands of people—you have to speak aloud your choice for Speaker of the House.

Despite some uncertainty about whether the Democrats would stand behind him, we heard “Michael J. Madigan” 66 times, from 66 of the 67 Democrats in the Illinois House, with 1 voting “Present.”

And so, as the historic 100th General Assembly convenes, it will mean the 17th term as Speaker for Michael J. Madigan. By the end of this term, Speaker Madigan will have ruled the Illinois House for 34 years, making him the longest-serving state house speaker in American history. Illinois turns 200 years old in 2018, and at our bicentennial, Michael Madigan will have presided over the Illinois House for roughly 1 out of every 6 years of our state’s existence.

On the Republican side of the aisle, we’ve gained 4 new seats, emerging from the super-minority for the first time since 2012. We will have a very different leadership team, with numerous members who are newer and younger than before. The Republicans are for the most part united, hopeful, and optimistic that the upcoming term will be more productive and successful than the last one. We’re looking forward to the important debates to come during these crucial next two years.

However, Michael J. Madigan is still in firm control of the Illinois House Rules, the committees, and the agenda, so any optimism on our side is tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism. In the Illinois Senate, it was recently revealed that the leader of the Democrats, John Cullerton, has been quietly and directly negotiating with the leader of the Republicans, Christine Radogno, in hopes of working out a compromise to break the state’s budget impasse. Not so in Madigan’s House!

Against this backdrop, I occasionally wonder what Abraham Lincoln, who served in the Illinois House, would think of what has become of his House, and of his home State. What would Mr. Lincoln say if he were to stride onto the House floor next week? (I can’t imagine he would be happy!)

I’m often asked what it’s like being in Springfield. On the one hand, serving in the Illinois House is an incredible honor and privilege. There’s nothing like it. On the other hand, that same service can be just as frustrating as you would imagine it would be: we’re facing a terrible crisis of confidence, an unbalanced budget, and mounting debts, with many refusing to even acknowledge the problems.

Going into my second term as your state representative, I know we can rise to the challenge. These past two years, I saw moments of bipartisan compromise on smaller issues, and I know we can get there on the larger issues. Thank you for giving me the continued opportunity to work for you to turn our state around, and to return Illinois to its rightful place as one of the strongest, safest, and most prosperous states in the Union.

Historic 100th General Assembly Tackles Monumental Budget Impasse

2017-01-11_12.01.29.jpgNext week, the members of the 100th General Assembly will be sworn in. Immense issues will face the legislators over the next two years.

The stopgap budget bill from last summer, which provided temporary spending authority for the state government, ended on December 31. Illinois has now passed New Jersey for the title of the highest property tax state in the country. And the state’s pension debt is over $130 billion, which means every household in Illinois would need to make an immediate cash payment of over $25,000, just to bring the pension system to solvency, and that’s solely for work performed in the past by government employees.

When you add up all these problems, it was no surprise to read the recent report that Illinois suffered a net loss of over 110,000 residents to other states last year—more people than make up an entire state representative district.

But during these next two years, Illinois will celebrate its 200th birthday, on December 3, 2018. We will commemorate the great Illinoisans of the past, whose spirit and strength tamed this vast expanse of wild prairie land. We will recall the inventive and hard-working souls who brought forth and built a world-class city, cultivated safe and friendly suburban communities, and established every manner of agriculture, trade, and manufacture across our state.

There’s a lesson in leadership called the “Stockdale Paradox,” named after Admiral James Stockdale, who was held captive and tortured for years as a P.O.W. during the Vietnam War. Stockdale’s method was to hold onto two principles simultaneously: 1) absolute faith that you will prevail in the end, no matter what happens, and 2) a clear-eyed confrontation of the facts of your current reality, no matter how difficult.

Adm. Stockdale credited his survival during the war to his “paradox.” Since then, the Stockdale Paradox has since been used in a variety of business, nonprofit, and government settings—any environment where difficult, seemingly impossible, situations are found.

It is hard to hold onto absolute faith that there can and will be reform and recovery for the Illinois economy and government. Many have instead lost hope in the promise of Illinois. The tax and debt numbers look too large to solve. The special interests seem too entrenched to allow for significant reform.

But without hope, the project of Illinois is lost. And looking back over the past 200 years, this state has suffered terrible lows and enjoyed marvelous highs—there is certainly cause for hope in that history!

And there’s no room for sugar-coating our present reality, either. But some refuse to see things as they are. They reject that there is any price to pay for our present course of overspending, over-regulation, and corruption. This may seem hard to believe, but I could put you in front of numerous legislators who believe everything in state government and economy is just fine.

As we enter this new year, let’s resolve to take a fresh look at the issues facing our state. Let’s take a deep, hard, clear look at the problems, but without falling into despair. And let’s maintain hope and faith that we will solve those problems. Then maybe, just maybe, when our Illinois Bicentennial rolls around in two years, we’ll be able to celebrate, not just our storied past, but our bright future.

Out of Balance

balance-154516_1280.pngFor over a decade, our state spending has been greater than the tax revenue we’ve taken in. Our state constitution required our budgets to be balanced, but instead of “balance,” the General Assembly used fund transfers and short-term borrowing to conceal over-spending. To the outside observer, those accounting tricks made it look like there was sufficient incoming revenue to cover the outgoing expenditures. But the whole scheme was a lie.

Essentially, when the credit card bill came due, we didn’t pay it off: we kept spending too much, and just transferred our balance to another card. The problem wasn’t on the income side, either. Our tax revenue has been generally healthy, enough to fund a proper state government. Had the General Assembly told the various special interests in Springfield, “no more,” we would have spent plenty of money, just not more money than we had coming in.

Predictably, Speaker Mike Madigan and his supporters disagree with this assessment. They were in charge for that decade of over-spending, because Madigan drew the legislative maps for the General Assembly, ensuring Democratic super-majorities in the House and Senate.

But that all changed in 2015, when the new governor came into office. He, along with the Republicans in the General Assembly, said “enough.” Enough to the over-spending, the tricks, and the lies. We found ourselves in a deep, deep hole—and the only way out of a hole like this is to first stop digging.

We’ve essentially been at a stalemate ever since. For the past year and a half, our state has operated without a budget: the spending of the state has instead been made through court orders, consent decrees, and short-term, limited legislation.

The four legislative leaders and the governor have met a couple times since veto session ended on December 1. The governor offered to Madigan that he was willing to consider a tax increase to cover the budget hole, but only if significant reforms can be made, to create jobs and clean up state government. However, Madigan responded publicly that they should do the budget first before talking reforms. So, the governor replied asking Madigan what his budget proposal was. The answer: “we’re working on it.” At that point, the governor said he’d call the next meeting as soon as Madigan’s proposal is ready. That was two weeks ago.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been part of several meetings of the reform working group, which is currently focused on worker’s compensation cost reduction. Manufacturing companies regularly tell me that our worker’s compensation costs are the highest in the Midwest, making us less competitive for jobs in that field and others.

Yet, you can tell that there’s no great willingness to compromise in these meetings. Agreements are few and far between, limited primarily to minor issues that the parties should agree on anyway.

I won’t sugarcoat it for you: Springfield is a very dark place. But when things are darkest, the light shines brighter. Here’s hoping that the Christmas story in some way rubs off on our state’s elected officials. May they see the Light emerging out of the darkness and embrace the grace and peace of Christmas. And then, with that inspiration, deliver a brighter future to the people of Illinois.

In the Breen household, we are having a wonderful time preparing for “Baby’s First Christmas.” May you and your family be blessed with the full measure of Christmas joy!


Compromise is a Two-Way Street

two-way-traffic-148887_1280.pngThis past week concluded the General Assembly’s veto session, and tensions were high in Springfield. I saw reasons both for hope and for dismay in the proceedings. On the hope side, the legislative leaders and the governor successfully hammered out an energy bill. That bill will keep two of our state’s six nuclear plants from going offline, along with bringing back into Illinois hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy spending that had been sent out of state.

The initial version of the energy bill was bloated, spending way too much money and suffering under the weight of pork projects for various interest groups. Without major changes, that bill was dead on arrival—but the stakes of failure were high. Without action by Springfield, the plants shut down, taking 10% of our state’s energy capacity offline and driving our electric rates through the roof, along with putting 4200 Illinoisans out of work and delivering a $1.2 billion blow to our state’s economy. But the governor and his staff set to work with the legislature and affected parties, driving a tough bargain on the bill. The governor demanded a guarantee that the plants would stay open at least ten years, removed the various costly special interest giveaways, and imposed strict caps to ensure residents and businesses don’t overpay for electricity. And after vigorous debate, the measure passed on close votes in both the House and Senate, with a commitment for the governor’s signature.

At the end of the day, not everyone got what they wanted in the energy bill, nor was the bill perfect. But in the face of certain catastrophe, the legislature and executive branch came together and rapidly negotiated a complex bill, to provide energy security to the people of Illinois. The way I see it, if you change the subject from “energy” to “budget,” and this looks a lot like a model for the two parties to come together for a tough, principled, and swift compromise for a balanced budget.

Now, while the parties were coming together to avert the energy crisis, there was cause for dismay. You may recall that, back at the end of June, the parties agreed on a stopgap budget, to put off the tough negotiations until after the pressure of the November election passed. Well, since the election, the governor has asked for meetings with the legislative leaders, but there doesn’t appear to be much urgency or substance emerging from them.

And this past week, Senate President John Cullerton repudiated a pension reform agreement, which was part of the foundation for the stopgap deal in June. As part of that deal, the General Assembly agreed to pay this year’s “normal cost” for Chicago teacher pensions (similar to the way the state pays the normal cost for suburban teacher pensions), but only if the parties came together to put in place pension reform that would benefit the whole state. That meant the General Assembly passed a bill to provide $215 million to the Chicago teacher pension fund—the theory being that the City of Chicago would push its legislators to negotiate and vote for statewide pension reform, so as not to lose the money for its own pension fund. The money for Chicago pensions was “held” until the end of the year, with the understanding that the governor would veto the measure if no agreement was reached on pension reform. The terms of the deal were known by all legislators and widely reported in the press.

That’s why everyone in the Capitol was shocked on Thursday when President Cullerton claimed to the media that there was no deal—no strings attached to the $215 million payment from the state treasury—and that the governor should just sign the bill and send the money to Chicago to bail out its pensions. In response to Cullerton’s denial of the well-understood agreement, the governor vetoed the bill a few hours later.

Negotiating a budget package isn’t just about drafting language—it requires trust. Trust that the other side will keep their agreement to support certain reform measures at a later date, trust that moneys appropriated will be spent as promised down the road, and the like. This latest breach of trust may prove a significant barrier to reaching compromise on a balanced budget and reforms to fix our state.

As we close this General Assembly, it’s one step forward, and one backward. Here’s hoping in the new year that the successful step forward, for compromise, will help the parties to heal and repair the step backward, the breach of trust. The stakes are too high and the harm to our state too great to continue without a balanced budget.

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbors’ Goods with Red Light “Scameras”

red_light_camera.jpgSeven years ago, I led a protest against red light cameras in Lombard, at the local headquarters of a multinational red light camera company. Organizing mostly on the internet, we worked with folks across Chicagoland to stop the spread of these cameras, urging that red light cameras are “unsafe, unwanted, and unnecessary.” Soon thereafter, plans were shelved in neighboring communities to expand red light camera usage, and the cameras came down in Lombard. Some towns even followed Lombard’s example and removed their cameras altogether.

Well, red light cameras are back in a big way—at the primary intersection serving Oak Brook Mall, Route 83 and 22nd Street. The story is a strange one, stemming from the unique geography of municipal boundaries near the mall. You see, that busy intersection is inside the boundaries of Oakbrook Terrace, while the neighboring mall is inside of the Village of Oak Brook.

In 2012, the city fathers of Oakbrook Terrace tried to put up a red light camera at the intersection, hoping to cash in on visitors to Oak Brook Mall. However, since a state road is involved, the approval of the Illinois Department of Transportation was required.

After a long delay, the request was denied earlier this year by IDOT, on the basis that there were not sufficient safety reasons to have cameras at that intersection. However, Oakbrook Terrace tried again, and without warning to the public, IDOT reversed course and approved the cameras, on the basis of “violations”—in other words, because the cameras would be able to snag a lot of folks turning right-on-red without coming to a complete stop.

Yes, IDOT approved the cameras solely because they’ll make Oakbrook Terrace a lot of money, and despite finding that there are not sufficient safety reasons to have cameras at that intersection.

The danger in putting up cameras right at the entrance to Oak Brook Mall is that folks will boycott the mall, just as many did when Schaumburg put cameras outside of Woodfield Mall. After less than a year, facing massive protests and loss of shoppers at their mall, the village fathers in Schaumburg wisely removed the cameras.

The fear here is that, unlike the Schaumburg situation, where that village was losing sales tax revenue because of its red light camera, Oakbrook Terrace may not feel similar pain if sales decline substantially at the neighboring Oak Brook Mall.

There may also be further impact throughout the area, since over the past ten years, a wonderful shopping corridor has developed along Butterfield Road and 22nd Street, anchored by Oak Brook Mall and Lombard’s Yorktown Mall. That corridor benefits all of our local communities, in a variety of ways, whether making our communities more appealing places to live, providing jobs, or bringing in needed sales and property tax revenue. The friendly competition between municipalities to bring in the latest and most exciting restaurants, shopping opportunities, and hotels is rightly a source of pride for all of our towns.

But a red light camera doesn’t add any economic value to our shared corridor—a red light camera at an entry intersection to our corridor is a parasite, intended only to suck money out of unsuspecting shoppers and commuters. Such a camera does nothing to improve safety but instead risks harming all of the businesses and towns along the corridor.

At this point, I’m hearing rumors of boycotts of Oakbrook Terrace businesses, but that seems a bit premature to me. I think the first thing folks should do is contact the city officials in Oakbrook Terrace to respectfully express your displeasure. You can call Oakbrook Terrace at (630) 941-8300.

I also intend to put forward legislation to prevent IDOT from allowing red light cameras at this intersection—or at any intersection where there is no proven safety reason to do so. Legislation takes a while, though, so the quickest way to remedy this situation is for Oakbrook Terrace to reverse their current course of action.

Illinois is broken, and we all have a responsibility to work together to fix it. More red light cameras won’t help us grow jobs or reform government. They’ll just take more money from hard-working Illinoisans, without providing any benefit in return.

Moving Forward

road-166543_1280.jpgThis has been the most unique political campaign season of our lifetimes. This was one of those rare election cycles that provided a “full-body experience”—it hit us in the head, the heart, and the gut. There were even widespread reports of folks having mental and physical breakdowns, over the twists and turns of the campaigns.

After such a time, there are good questions to be asked about whether we can go forward from here. After all, campaigns aren’t an end in themselves. Campaigns are the means to our shared end of choosing who will govern us. As I write these words, I don’t know who has won the various races across the state and country. But I do know that, no matter how tired we are after this campaign, the real work—the work we’re elected to do—is entirely before us.

We are scheduled to head back to Springfield next week, to a very uncertain agenda. I hear rumors of every stripe: some say we’ll achieve a “grand bargain,” with reform and a balanced budget, before the next General Assembly is sworn in, but others say that Madigan won’t allow any bills to move that could give Rauner a “win” to tout in his 2018 re-election campaign. The House Republican Caucus will look different in January, too, due to many retirements of longtime members. In fact, over half of the House GOP will be relative newcomers, like me, who were first elected in 2014 or 2016. These aren’t career politicians, and you should see a lot of energy coming from this group.

At the national level, the crystal ball is even cloudier. The substantive issues are up in the air, from jobs and trade, to immigration and national security. Between the President, the House, and the Senate, you have groups of people with very divergent agendas, all of which have to be reconciled into a coherent national policy. Many other important issues, not directly related to policy, must also now be hashed out, including how to handle the Supreme Court vacancy, the pending criminal investigations, and the selection of the new President’s staff.

On that front, I’d say the most important question is, who do we trust to be our Attorney General, the chief prosecutor and law enforcement officer for the country? Who should be our Secretary of State, the primary representative of American interests and policy to foreign governments? And who should be appointed to the thousands of other positions a new president must fill, for jobs high and low throughout the federal government? There’s an old political adage that “personnel is policy”—a president can come up with great policy statements, but without good people to execute those policies, they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on.

Six months from now, we should know the answers to these questions. But it could be a rough ride in the short term, so buckle up!