Scoppe: The cost of the Senate stall

Associate EditorMay 28, 2013 

Scoppe

— AS THE SENATE convenes this morning to begin its third week of budget debate, the radicals on the right have to be feeling pretty good about themselves.

They forced their insufficiently anarchical GOP colleagues to go on the record on their favorite culture-war issues, which was their unabashed goal. And isn’t that the point of a budget? To force other legislators to take votes that could be politically damaging? After all, we do have an election coming up … in three years.

They also managed to score some small victories, forcing a majority of the Senate to agree to subsidize private schools and private “scholarship-granting organizations” and to reduce the general fund to pay for road and bridge repair. They even got to pontificate on their pointless proposal to “nullify” Obamacare — though they weren’t able to force a vote on that, and likely won’t be able to.

But at what price?

Even if you think their substantive victories are commendable — and I don’t — they’ve dug us far deeper in a hole on two essential reforms: putting some teeth in our legislative ethics law and dismantling the Budget and Control Board and letting the governor govern and the Legislature legislate. Serious stuff that makes a difference in how our government operates.

Gov. Nikki Haley, in a conference call Thursday with editorial writers, said she was worried that the Legislature would once again adjourn — six legislative days from now — with the Senate in the middle of a debate on one of her priorities. This time, ethics.

That wouldn’t technically kill the legislation, this being the first year in a two-year session. But absent another blockbuster scandal — and the good news is that there’s always a chance we’ll have one, between the Senate ethics charges against Sen. Robert Ford and the SLED investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell and, well, who knows what else is to come? — the delay could obliterate whatever momentum reform has.

That would mean the Senate would keep enforcing senators’ compliance with the law and the House would keep enforcing House members’ compliance with the law. It would mean that legislators still wouldn’t have to tell us anything particularly meaningful about who pays them, and thus whose interests they might be tempted to represent instead of ours. It would mean that all sorts of special interests would be able to keep manipulating our votes without even telling us who they are.

It wasn’t supposed to work like this. After decades of being the place where bills go to die, the Senate changed its rules this year to make it easier for the majority to at least debate, and sometimes even pass, bills they supported. Those changes were supposed to keep senators from clogging up the calendar and interminably debating bills they didn’t really care about in order to keep from even getting to the ones they really opposed.

But those changes don’t affect the budget, which senators can use as a pretext to debate whatever comes to mind, from abortion to the High School League. Hence the debate of two weeks. And counting.

The Democrats, of course, are not without blame. They insisted on debating and voting on a Medicaid expansion plan that we ought to embrace but that everyone knew to a moral certainty had no prayer of passing. And several of them, having made it clear that they have no interest in ethics reform, were more than happy to take the libertarians’ bait and engage in endless back-and-forth on their amendments, running the clock even more.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, who engineered the rules changes that haven’t quite done the job he hoped they would, told me Thursday that the Senate still might be able to pass an ethics bill if it could get the budget passed today or Wednesday. And if the ethics debate didn’t drag on for too long. And one or both of those contingencies might occur. Or not.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, said Friday he felt confident the Senate would pass ethics — though he wasn’t convinced the final product would be particularly impressive. His concern was for the Budget and Control Board abolition bill that he sponsored and that his once and future electoral foe, Gov. Haley, has made her other priority.

After he and Sen. Martin worked to get that bill passed in the Senate in record time this year, the House dropped into stall, not getting its own version of the bill back to the Senate until last week. By then, the Senate was debating the budget, during which it is impossible to send bills to conference committee without unanimous consent. On Tuesday, the two leading Republican radicals, Sens. Lee Bright and Shane Martin, objected to the good Sen. Martin’s motion. On Wednesday, it was Sen. Joel Lourie, one of Mr. Sheheen’s closest allies.

Once the Senate finishes the budget — maybe today, maybe Wednesday, assuming no one digs back in — it should be an easy matter to get the restructuring bill to a conference committee, where it should but won’t be an easy matter for House and Senate negotiators to work out a compromise that can pass both bodies. Easy, that is, unless someone puts up a fight.

Which would further delay the start of debate on the ethics bill.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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