Until Michael Madigan came along, no one ever made a career of being speaker of the Illinois House. A state legislature is the minor leagues of politics, right?

Many of Madigan’s predecessors used the speakership as a stepping stone to something bigger. Paul Powell was elected Secretary of State, and became a wealthy man. Ralph Tyler Smith was appointed to the U.S. Senate after Everett Dirksen died. George Ryan gave up the office to become lieutenant governor, a job considered so worthless his predecessor had quit out of boredom, then secretary of state, then governor, then convicted felon.

The job of Illinois House Speaker wasn’t a big deal until Madigan made it a big deal. Madigan understood that his route to the pinnacle of Chicago politics was blocked by the Daley family, so he sought instead to build a career in Springfield, shrewdly using an office that others had discarded to make himself the most powerful man in Illinois.

It helped that Madigan’s election as speaker in 1983 coincided with a change to the House of Representatives that suddenly made the office more powerful. Until 1982, Illinois had 59 legislative districts. Each sent three representatives and one senator to Springfield — 177 reps — based on "cumulative voting," in which Illinoisans had three votes to spread out between candidates or heap onto one. In that version of the capitol (the "Big House") both parties agreed to run only two candidates per district, guaranteeing the minority party one representative in each — Republicans in Chicago, and Democrats in the farm towns.

In 1980, though, the “Cutback Amendment,” sponsored by future Gov. Pat Quinn, reduced the number of representatives from 177 to 118, all elected from 118 single-member districts. (The legislature had just given itself a pay raise, and voters thought it needed to trim some fat.) The new house made it easier for party leaders to control members, since they now controlled the party operations in their districts.

“To some extent, it’s not a house of representatives — it’s the house of Madigan and [former Republican speaker Lee] Daniels,” former Chicago Republican Rep. Susan Catania told me in 1999. “They can defeat rebels.”

Now, legislators are eager for a speaker who doesn’t rule with an iron fist. According to POLITICO, “Madigan understands he doesn’t have the 60 votes necessary to win the House speakership if the election were held today.” If he can’t find them, it will be “a big moment for the Legislature to change gears in how business is done. That includes more autonomy in handling issues, legislation and committee staff, which all go through Madigan’s office.”

The Big House isn’t coming back, but there are more practical methods for reducing the speaker’s power.

Currently, Article I, Rule 4, (a) (14) of the House Rules gives the speaker the power to appoint all chairpersons of all committees from both parties, and to appoint all majority caucus members to committees. That means he can dictate the membership of the House Rules Committee, which decides whether legislation reaches the floor. And every speaker's gavel comes with a $10,000 stipend, a financial perk for Madigan to dole out to members.

Not every state legislature operates this way. According to the Illinois Policy Institute study “Madigan’s Rules," in 13 states, "committee chairs are appointed by a designated committee, often known as a ‘committee on committees.’ The speaker may appoint the members of a ‘committee on committees,’ but that committee votes to appoint the leadership of all the other committees in the chamber, providing a check on the speaker’s power.”

Also through his control of the House, Madigan controls redistricting, which he's used to build a 74-member supermajority. That supermajority has allowed him to defeat such initiatives as the Fair Maps Amendment, which would institute a non-partisan commission for drawing legislative districts.

Another enormous source of Madigan’s power is his chairmanship of the Illinois Democratic Party, which he has officially led since 1998. Madigan is a prolific fundraiser, and knows exactly which races require his money and his political operatives — the Madigoons. Representatives elected with the party’s help are inevitably beholden to its chairman. Madigan learned the importance of controlling the party machinery from his mentor, Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was also chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

Prohibiting a future speaker from holding the party chairmanship would be another curb on the office. So would term limits. With 36 years in office, Madigan is the longest-serving state House speaker not just in Illinois history, but in American history. (The youngest House member, 29-year-old Aaron Ortiz, was eight years from being born when Madigan was first elected speaker.) Before Madigan came along, the longest-tenured Illinois speaker was David Shanahan, a Chicago Republican who served six non-consecutive terms in the early 20th Century.

Should Madigan fail to secure the 60 votes he needs when the House chooses a speaker in January (and should another member succeed) there will never be another Madigan-style leader in the role. If the Illinois Dems have learned anything this year, it's that whoever comes after him should inherit a less powerful office — one not worth holding onto for life.