Half-Year Legislative Sessions: WWFD?

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S.C.’S SESSION SUFFOCATES REFORM AND CULTIVATES FULL-TIME POLITICIANS: WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS DO?

The Policy Council has long taken the view that South Carolina’s legislative session is far too long. One might at first think a long session is necessary in order to let lawmakers “get things done,” but in part that’s precisely the problem – too many of the wrong things get done.

Among the bills to address this problem in our annual Best & Worst guide – download your copy here – is a bill, H.3340, that would confine South Carolina’s legislative session to the roughly three months between the second Tuesday in February and the first Thursday in May. This year’s session, by contrast (the first year of a two-year session), ran a full five and a half months – from January 9th to June 26th. A session this long allows more face-time with lobbyists; it allows special interest groups more time to sink reforms they oppose and promote the favors they support; and it allows more time for lawmakers to load the state budget with political favors and turn strong reform bills into rhetorical gestures.

The fact that this bill’s supporters typically present it as a way to save taxpayer money (by lessening the amounts spent on lawmakers per diem payments and the like) suggests they may not grasp the nature of the problem H.3340 seeks to remedy. Still, the legislation would in fact shorten session substantially.

The nation’s founders generally considered it undesirable to have a class of year-round legislators who viewed their legislative function as their primary occupation. They preferred instead that legislative bodies be made up of citizen-legislators who would meet for only a very brief period of the year so that they could quickly return to their true full time private occupations.

It’s well known that for a long time in the nation’s history, Washington wasn’t a place anyone wanted to go. The founders themselves thought of lawmaking as a duty rather than a desirable high-profile occupation, and the reluctance with which many elected officials went to Washington lasted well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1869, as President Grant assembled his cabinet, one lady called on the president to find out whom he had chosen – because she had rooms to rent.*

Many of the Founders felt that a lengthy session would remove lawmakers’ connections to their constituents and allow them to pass unnecessary and burdensome laws. They generally held that lawmakers should remain home for as much of the year as possible, both to hear the concerns of the people and to feel the effects of the laws they passed. “Nothing so strongly impels a man to regard the interest of his constituents,” argued George Mason at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in June of 1788, “as the certainty of returning to the general mass of the people, from whence he was taken, where he must participate in their burdens.” †

Similarly Roger Sherman, arguing for biennial elections for lawmakers at the Constitutional Convention (he actually preferred annual), thought “representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.”‡ And further back, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 explicitly states that since “every freeman … ought to have some profession, calling, trade or farm, whereby he may honestly subsist, there can be no necessity for, nor use in establishing offices of profit.”

South Carolina’s excessively long session – among the longest in the nation – has encouraged the creation of a class of full-time politicians. The founders sought to prevent such a class from emerging, and H.3340 strikes us as entirely in accord with their thinking on the subject.

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*William McFeeley, Grant (New York: Norton, 1982), 286.

Founding the American Presidency, ed. Richard Ellis (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield), 100.

‡Quoted by James Madison in Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 (New York: Norton, 1966), 170.

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