What to Watch at the Organizational Session

THERE’S MORE AT STAKE THAN YOU MIGHT THINK

At this week’s organizational session, South Carolina House lawmakers will be asked to make several important decisions, including who becomes Speaker of the House and Speaker Pro Tempore. The identity of the next Speaker, however, is all but a foregone conclusion, and some other points may be both more controversial and more important.

Among these, a recent proposal would amend House rules to require anyone testifying before a House committee to be sworn in. If passed, that rule would give lawmakers the authority to impose fines and jail time for giving “materially misleading” or “materially incomplete” testimony. For more on how a few lawmakers are openly expressing a desire to “get” certain groups, read Monday’s The Nerve’s story on it. Take a look, too, at the meeting where all this was discussed: click here and go to the October 30 meeting of House Rules and Procedures Ad-Hoc Committee 1:50:15 for the relevant part of the discussion.

(The lead sponsor of the proposal, it’s worth nothing – Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence – also proposed a rule requiring anyone wishing to testify before a House committee to disclose the names of people who donate to his or her nonprofit organization. That proposal – a clear attempt to bully nonprofit groups into silence – was withdrawn when members raised questions about its constitutionality.)

House members will consider several other proposals. One would crack down on some lawmakers’ abuse of a procedure whereby they can send bill straight to the floor – “without reference” – without being vetted by a standing committee. Readers may remember a controversial move during the 2014 session in which allies of the former House Speaker (led by the aforementioned Rep. Kris Crawford) attempted to send a bill stripping the Attorney General of his constitutional power straight to the floor – a clear attempt to retaliate against the A.G. for pursuing an investigation of the Speaker.

Another proposal would require committee votes to be recorded – a reform long advocated by SCPC and citizen activist Don Rogers. Still another would limit the Speaker to serving five terms – a joke of a proposal since (a) five terms is plenty of time to gain unilateral control over the state government (the last House Speaker was in his fifth term when he was indicted) and (b) limiting the Speaker’s terms would simply allow more members to have their turn exercising unaccountable power over all three branches of state government. This and other proposals are clearly explained here.

One issue the new Speaker will have to deal with is what to do about Speaker Harrell’s slate of committee chairmen. The incumbent chairmen were very closely allied to the indicted Speaker, and reappointing Harrell’s choices would strongly suggest that the existing power structure will remain in place. All committees will be assigned by the Speaker, with the exception of the Ethics Committee and the Operations and Management Committee. Chairmen play highly important roles in statewide policy decision-making, with vast powers over everything from tuition at public colleges to K-12 assessment systems, and from road funding to the approval of utility rate hikes.

At bottom, though, the real problem isn’t the person of the Speaker or the number of terms the Speaker can run for. The real problem is the concentrated and unaccountable power that office holds. Whether lawmakers are serious about that will be determined in 2015.

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