House Committee Proposes Rule Changes
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE IMPROVABLE
Last week we wrote about some of the bills proposed by the House Ethics and Freedom of Information Act Committee, the committee created in the wake of the indictment (and subsequent conviction) of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell. These haven’t been the only proposals coming from the House in recent weeks. Another Ad Hoc Committee on House Rules and Procedures has been simultaneously drafting and debating possible changes to the House’s internal rules. The proposals approved by this committee will go before the entire House for a vote during the chamber’s organizational session.
Some of the proposals would move state government in the right direction. Others would entrench or even exacerbate existing flaws. What follows are the most significant proposals, and the action the committee has taken on them.
Proposals 2 and 3
Together the proposals would delete rules 4.7B and 9.3. These allow a House committee to attach a previously passed House bill as an amendment to a Senate bill they pass with a favorable report. This would be a positive change to the legislative process. Forcing more bills to stand on their own merits will give legislators fewer excuses for supporting legislation with bad provisions. However, the committee voted to table each of these rule proposals – not allowing them to come up for a yes/no vote.
This proposed rule would amend rule 5.19 to require that all bills must be explained to the body for at least ten minutes or until all questions are addressed before the measure can receive second reading. This reform could prevent the advancement of bad legislation which occurs when legislators do not have all the facts or explanation of the impact the new law could have. Legislators should never pass bills to find out what’s in them. This proposal was unanimously adopted.
Rule 5.6 would be amended by this proposal to prohibit a bill going without reference (directly onto the calendar without a committee hearing) prior to the roll of the House being taken and the Speaker determining a quorum is present. Decorum would suggest this rule be followed without having to be written, but recent history has shown decorum cannot always be relied on. This seems to be a direct response to the attempt last session to rush through bills that would have stripped the Attorney General of his constitutional powers. The proposal was unanimously adopted.
This proposal amends House rule 9.1 to add that the budget bill, supplemental appropriations bill, and Capital Reserve Fund bill, upon being returned from the Senate with amendments, shall not be considered until their number and title have been printed in the House Calendar and their contents made available to the public online for at least 48 hours. The proposal would further amend rule 5.14 to say that no conference report on the budget bill, supplemental appropriations bill, or Capital Reserve Fund bill can be considered until the report has been printed in the Journal and made available online to the public for at least 24 hours. A two thirds vote would be required to waive this rule. Budgetary bills are arguably the core function of a legislature. It is crucial that both legislators and citizens have time to examine and give input on these bills before they are voted on. This proposal was adopted unanimously. One way the House could further provide transparency in this process would be to follow the state law requiring joint open hearings on each year’s executive budget.
This would amend rule 4.8 to require the Speaker to recommit any bill returned from the Senate that has been amended in such a way that it is no longer germane to the original bill. The body would be still be allowed to prevent a bill being recommitted by a two thirds vote. Under current rules, this decision is made at the Speaker’s discretion. Somewhat similar to proposals 2 and 3, this change would help to prevent questionable legislation from being fast-tracked without proper debate. The proposal was unanimously adopted by the committee.
Proposal 17 and 18
As recommended by SCPC, the committee adopted a proposed rule change to require votes be recorded in committee. While the proposal would only require recorded votes on favorable reports of bills and joint resolutions (whether the bill makes it out of committee or not), and not on all matters before the committee – such as amendments to the legislation – it is a step forward. This proposal was adopted unanimously. Notably, however, the committee rejected an even stronger version of this rule that would have required all committee votes be recorded – not just votes on the favorable report of bills and resolutions.
Proposal 1 would amend rule 4.2 to create a new standing committee on legislative oversight .This rule seeks to avoid existing standing committees conducting oversight of executive agencies, boards, and commissions, as required by the Department of Administration (DOA) bill. Legislators included this new power in the DOA bill, but some are now balking at the work involved in exercising it. This proposal was unanimously adopted.
Introduced by Rep. Kris Crawford (R- Florence), this rule would require that, prior to a representative of a nonprofit organization testifying before the House or one of its committees, he or she must provide the names, addresses, and phone numbers of individuals or corporations that donate to the organization or group; and the source, type, and amount of donations received in the previous twelve months. This proposal is an attempt to squash South Carolinians’ constitutional right to petition their government. Forcing the disclosure of donors to private organization could lead to intimidation and harassment of these donors by those in power. After members of the committee voiced valid constitutional concerns over this proposal, it was withdrawn.
This proposal was put forward as a substitute for Proposal 13 and would require anyone testifying before any House committee to first be sworn in by the presiding officer of the committee. The new rule would furthermore require that any individual who “willfully gives false, materially misleading, or materially incomplete testimony under oath” be found in “contempt of the General Assembly.” The law establishing “contempt of the General Assembly” specifies that “a person who is convicted of or pleads guilty to contempt of the General Assembly is guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, must be fined within the discretion of the court or imprisoned for not more than five years, or both.” It’s hard to see how this is anything but an attempt to intimidate legislators’ critics and prevent citizens from petitioning their government. Not even the U.S. congress requires all testimony be given under oath. This proposal was adopted by the committee.
This would amend rules 1.7 and 1.8 to limit the Speaker and Speaker Pro Tempore to five consecutive terms. The proposal also stipulates that the Speaker Pro Tempore shall take over the Speaker’s duties in the event the Speaker has a conflict of interest. Term limits are probably not a setback, but they’re also not the major reform they’re often described as being. The previous Speaker served five terms, and that was plenty of time for him to take advantage of the system. It’s not clear whether such a term limit would actually prevent a repeat of that history. Further, representatives already have it in their power to remove leaders who abuse their power; they simply need to muster the courage to vote them out. The conflict of interest provision is more relevant than the term limits but it could stand to be less vague. We previously recommended that the House define “presiding officer” in such a way that, if another speaker requires suspension from the body, it will be clear who should carry out the suspension. This proposal was ultimately divided into two proposals: 4(a) concerning Speaker’s term limits, and 4(b) concerning Speaker Pro Tempore’s term limits and taking over the speaker’s duties. Both provisions of the rule were eventually adopted.
Proposal 5 would amend rule 4.16 by deleting currently defined duties of the House Ethics Committee and inserting new duties, most of them similar in nature or even identical to the current duties of the committee. The proposal also bans leadership PACs and candidates taking money from leadership PACs. The changes in the duties of the House Ethics Committee seem to be largely cosmetic, but there are some transparency benefits: for example, stating that actions, meeting, etc., of the House Ethics Committee are subject to FOIA unless otherwise indicated by rule or statute. Formal public hearings before the committee would also be open to the public. The only genuine reform in this area would involve abolishing the committee entirely and clarifying that complaints that are criminal in nature should be investigated by the state’s Attorney General. The rule was adopted with the exception of the provision banning candidates from accepting contributions from leadership PACs, which was tabled. In other words: candidates or public officials can’t create/control a leadership PAC, but they can accept a contribution from one.
Rule 4.2 would be amended by this proposal to create a new standing committee on Regulations and Administrative Procedures to review all regulations proposed by state agencies. At least two members from each of six other standing legislative committees must be appointed to the new committee. This may be a slight improvement over the existing system, in which regulations are sent to be approved by the standing committees to which they are most closely related. (Regulations can also be ignored by the relevant committee – in which case they become law.) Creating a committee may encourage legislators to take their regulation responsibilities more seriously, but it’s hard to see how it would prevent the enactment of regulations without legislative approval. Nor is it likely to be as effective a curb on regulation as a sunset law. This proposal was unanimously adopted.