Testimony: Reforms to House Rules

[Editorial note: The following testimony was delivered by Policy Council Director of Research Jamie Murguia to the House Ad Hoc Committee on Rules and Procedures. The committee was appointed by Speaker of the House Pro Tempore Jay Lucas. Watch a video of Murguia’s testimony here.]

Good afternoon. My name is Jamie Murguia. I am the director of research for the South Carolina Policy Council. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with all of you today.

As I understand it, the role of this committee is to review and recommend changes to the operation and management of the House. However, in light of the recent indictment of your former speaker, it is our expectation that the House of Representatives will not limit reform simply to internal rules of procedure.

The majority of the power the speaker wields is through statewide appointments to executive branch boards and commissions. That power over the function of state government cannot be addressed through the rules of the House of Representatives. Furthermore, the power over statewide boards and commissions belonging to certain committee chairmen – for example, the chairman of LCI serves on the Public Utility Review Committee and the chairman of Ways and Means serves on the Budget and Control Board – cannot be addressed through the rules of the House of Representatives. It must be addressed, rather, through statutory and constitutional changes.

I realize, however, that this committee is charged with recommending changes to the rules, and there are some ways the chamber’s rules can make the House more accountable. We have some specific recommendations, a couple of ideas we’d like you all to consider, as well as a few practices we believe should eliminated.

I’d like to take a moment to make clear that, while the state constitution grants you the power to establish rules for your body, House rules do not trump state law. House rules can clarify or go further than state law, but they cannot trump it.

Specific recommendations

Define “presiding officer”

We see this as a simple matter of clarification. Following the indictment of Speaker Harrell, there was confusion as to who should suspend him from office. It took an Attorney General’s opinion, requested by two members of this committee, to clarify that the speaker could not be the “presiding officer” for purposes of carrying out his own suspension. Obviously, he was personally interested. We would therefore recommend defining “presiding officer” in such a way that, if another speaker requires suspension from the body – and I think we all hope that won’t happen – it will be clear who should carry out the suspension.

Record votes in committee

Roll call votes are the only way for members of the public to hold their lawmaker accountable for the policy decisions they make. Roll call voting has had an impact. In today’s State newspaper, for example, one state senator, concerned with the fact that not many of his colleagues want to vote for a bill that would raise the gas tax, is quoted as saying: “The purpose [of roll-call voting] was to expose, but what it did was kill legislation.” In other words, roll-call voting has made public officials accountable for their votes.

We’d like to see a similar level of accountability extended to committee proceedings. We recommend a rule requiring recorded votes during the committee process, and for those votes to be made publicly available on the State House website. Furthermore, we recommend that each committee’s vote for chairman be recorded and made publicly available by the same means.

Ideas to consider

Term Limits

I understand that various members of the body have suggested implementing term limits on the Speaker of the House and the House committee chairmen. While it may be tempting to do this in order to breathe new life into the leadership positions, term limits won’t address the central problem – the concentration of power among a few individuals. Absent the elimination of statewide power the speaker wields, term limits on this position will simply give more members their turn as the most powerful politician in the state.

Every two years the voters of this state have the opportunity to elect the person they feel will best represent them in this body. House members likewise can elect the person you feel will best lead the body. Every representative holds that power equally. Your vote for speaker should be based on the candidate’s ability to lead, and on his integrity and honesty – not whether or not you think he will give you a good committee assignment. If you don’t like the speaker, don’t vote for him next time. The same goes for committee chairmen. While each member does not have a vote for the chairman of each standing committee, you do have a vote for the chair of the respective committee on which you serve. Use your vote judiciously and hold the chairman accountable for the work of the committee.

Toward that end, use Rule 4.6

Rule 4.6 states:

After twenty days from the date of reference, the chairman of the committee in possession of a measure shall, upon written request of a sponsor or, in the case of a Senate measure, a House member, set a time for consideration of the measure by the full committee or subcommittee which shall be no later than seven legislative working days thereafter. Provided, however, that a member may request consideration of a bill or resolution pursuant to this rule only one time per bill or resolution during a legislative session.

This is an excellent rule and should be used more often. If there is concern that committee chairmen are not giving bills proper consideration, members should use this rule to force a public hearing on their proposal. We see this as an appropriate way for each member to hold the House’s committee chairmen accountable for their actions or inaction.

Practices to eliminate

Voting in committee on amendments and bills that aren’t drafted

Often, as you know, the most critical debate on legislation doesn’t occur on the floor but in committees and subcommittees. It is therefore imperative that members of the committee, other members of the body, and the public be able to read proposed legislation before members of the committee are asked to vote on it.

Last year, for instance, a massive ethics bill was passed in subcommittee and committee without members even having the opportunity to read what they were voting on. When we were finally able to read the bill, we realized it decriminalized most of the ethics code. Several members were quick to point out that the change was unintentional, but the bill made it through two stages of the legislative process and only a handful of people knew what the bill actually contained. Citizens can’t hold legislators accountable for intentions. We can only hold members accountable for votes. It’s in your interest, therefore – and more importantly in the interests of your constituents – to ensure that no bill is hidden from the public.

Follow the Budget law – no need to split Ways and Means Committee

I gather there’s an effort to split the powerful Ways and Means Committee. We’re not clear what the rationale is behind this, and we don’t understand the need to create another committee.

There’s definitely a problem with the committee, however, and that problem is that it spends the vast majority of its time on the state budget – so much time, in fact, that it barely has any time to consider other legislation. But rather than adding another committee, members should consider addressing the workload problem by following an existing state law. The law requires that the governor write the first draft of the state spending plan, and requires the appropriations committees of both chambers to hold joint open hearings on that document. That law hasn’t been followed in decades. If it were followed, the committee would have significantly less work to do on the budget, and would be able to appropriately carry out its remaining duties to consider the numerous other legislative proposals before it.

We’re encouraged that the House is taking this early opportunity to enact reform, and we hope you’ll consider these proposals. Thank you for your time.

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