Columbia, SC — LET’S STIPULATE at the outset that politicians talk differently to editorial writers than they talk to other politicians, and to the public. They’re more measured, less apt to throw out red meat, more … reasonable. Even so, it was striking last week to notice how gingerly Gov. Nikki Haley spoke about the Legislature when she talked with editorial writers about her post-spring-break priorities.
Oh, she left little doubt that she was worried — as am I, as are others who want to see some progress — about the prognosis for ethics reform and government restructuring efforts, both of which looked fairly promising coming into this legislative session.
She said repeatedly that important legislation was being “slow walked,” and she called out the lower chamber for failing to act on either measure, noting that “The House really hasn’t done that much this year, and we want to get them focused again.”
But there were no attacks. No zingers. Time after time, she kept coming back to how the changes she’s pushing would benefit legislators. It was as if she was actually trying to make a convincing argument — in recent years a foreign concept for governors — rather than simply hammering them over the head with pre-gurgitated talking points. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this — she took a similar tack the first time she broke her fast from editorial writer discourse, back in the fall — but it’s so different from her initial, pugilistic approach to the Legislature that it’s still worth noting.
The governor framed fuller income-disclosure requirements for lawmakers not as preventing them from hiding conflicts of interest but as making their decisions easier: “As a legislator, I would have loved knowing exactly what I had to do rather than having to go to a staff attorney and say what do I do,” said the governor who, quite legally, left some extremely interesting conflicts off of her own disclosure reports. She spoke similarly about the idea of making how campaign funds can be spent “very black and white.”
Even when she suggested that some lawmakers might have something to hide, she did it gently. “I think we have some legislators that might be walking a fine line,” she said. “And if they are, this is an opportunity to fix it and make it right.” Then she came the closest — and it was only close compared to everything else she said — to a heavy-handed pronouncement: “But to think they can stop this and make it go away, we’re not going to let this go away.”
Equally muted was her criticism of legislators for clinging to their special exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, which they say is necessary to protect correspondence from constituents. “We deal with constituents too, and we’re not afraid to show anything,” she said. “I don’t think they’re hiding anything, but I think it sure makes them look like they are when they maintain this exemption. … If they really sat back and thought about it, there’s nothing they’re doing now that they can’t show” to the public.
Most striking was the way she talked about the Senate-passed bill to abolish the Budget and Control Board and give most of its duties to a new Department of Administration controlled by the governor. You might recall that she was so determined to bludgeon the Legislature into passing a weak version of that legislation her first year in office that she trashed the constitution and tried to force lawmakers back to town during a recess. The Supreme Court had to put her in her place on that one.
Last week, she praised the Senate and expressed frustration that in her conversations with House leaders, “they’re kind of implying, ‘Do you want DOA or ethics?’ ” That’s a pretty egregious thing, particularly coming from legislators who go around beating their chests and proclaiming their commitment to giving the governor more authority and cleaning up our ethics laws but have practically nothing to show for the former and absolutely nothing to show for the latter.
But when I asked her to elaborate, it felt as though she suddenly realized how damaging that charge could be to House leaders — and so to her relationship with them — and once again she reframed the challenge from their perspective.
“I don’t think this is a motive of the Legislature to give me only one” of the reforms, she said. Instead, she said, it’s a matter of resources: The Department of Administration bill and ethics reform are both complex bills. And they’re both the responsibility of the same subcommittee.
“They’re saying we can only do one at a time, and I understand that,” the governor said, showing great restraint in not mentioning that the subcommittee, led by House Republican Leader Bruce Bannister, hasn’t managed to even start work on the Department of Administration bill, one of the “priorities” of his caucus, more than halfway through the legislative session. “I’m saying do something. … They’re saying do you want DOA or ethics first, and I’m saying, let’s be clear: I want both.”
Who knows? If she keeps talking like that, she might be able to get what she wants. And what we need.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571.