Scoppe: Legislative follies

Associate EditorJune 2, 2013 

— SENATE leaders looked grim Thursday morning, as most Democrats and the Republican extremists used the body’s anti-majoritarian, delay-friendly rules to eviscerate a year’s worth of work.

Ethics reform wasn’t even going to get debated. Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin’s plan to use an obscure rule to slip it into priority status the day before had failed when the coalition of non-centrists demonstrated they were willing to talk a companion bill to the state budget to death if that’s what it took to kill ethics reform.

This Senate is so fractured and undisciplined, Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman told me when I asked why the leadership continues to coddle the extremists, that there’s no way it could muster the votes to force a senator to stop filibustering — regardless of the topic.

Even the bill to abolish the Budget and Control Board, which Sen. Martin worked so hard with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Vincent Sheheen to get passed early in the session, was in doubt. After the House sat on the bill for three months, Mr. Martin made a tactical gamble Tuesday evening to get it into conference committee as quickly as possible, and now, two days later, House Speaker Bobby Harrell still hadn’t appointed his conferees.

But then poof. Magic.

Suddenly, the Senate voted, with one vote to spare, to put the ethics reform bill on priority debate status. The previous day’s failure meant the debate can’t start until Tuesday. But it wouldn’t have anyway, since the Senate had to adjourn early Thursday so its Ethics Committee could begin the hearing that would prompt Sen. Robert Ford to resign the next day.

And then poof. More magic.

The Capital Reserve Fund bill passed.

And across the hall, the speaker finally appointed conferees for the Budget and Control Board abolition bill — though too late for the Senate to get its appointed and work started before Tuesday.

It was as if there had never been that horrible Wednesday, when six radical Republicans joined Mr. Leatherman (who wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of the budget) and all but four Democrats to deliver what looked like a death blow to ethics reform.

The magic served as an important reminder that, especially in the Senate, nearly anything can happen, particularly as the session lurches toward its annual close on the first Thursday of June.

Only, there’s no such thing as magic. There are only magicians’ tricks.

There never was any real question that Mr. Harrell would appoint conferees for the Budget and Control Board bill; the question, which remains unanswered, is when the negotiators will reach an agreement.

There was no reason to block the Capital Reserve Fund bill once it could no longer be used to block ethics reform.

And the radical Republicans made no bones about their goal: Oppose ethics reform in an effort to get their ridiculous bill to nullify Obamacare on the debate agenda. And sure enough, immediately after they voted to allow a debate on ethics reform, the rational Republicans voted with them to give the nullification bill priority status. And Sen. Katrina Shealy tweeted out how delightful it was that the Senate Republicans had all just voted together, three times in a row. It was the sort of quid pro quo that radical Sen. Lee Bright just moments later told the Senate was unacceptable. At least when he’s not the one on the quo end.

It was the opposite of what had happened a week earlier, when the rational Republicans gave in on the most insidious piece of the private-school “choice” agenda, and then the radicals still voted against the budget. (On Thursday, only one of them opposed the Capital Reserve Fund bill.)

It must have been unnerving for Senate Democrats to watch this. They’ve managed to cling to what little influence they have in our state by forming coalitions with the rational Republicans. While the rational Republicans hold the leadership positions and still constitute a majority of their caucus, they don’t have the two-thirds vote it takes to pass a bill when even a single senator objects.

But as the Republican leaders demonstrated over the past two weeks, they are going to get certain priorities passed. Although they clearly prefer to work with Democrats instead of the libertarian flame-throwers, when the Democrats won’t play ball, they have no choice but to turn to the radicals. Even if it means supporting things they oppose. One Democratic senator acknowledged that his caucus had overplayed its hand in the budget. Unfortunately, his colleagues didn’t seem to learn from that schooling.

As a result of all this, we get stuck not only with the undermine-public-education plan but now also a debate if not passage of the cringe-inducing, lawsuit-losing nullification bill. And the Democrats make it easier for critics to lump Sen. Sheheen in with them as part of the anti-ethics caucus, even though he broke with them to support ethics reform.

The good news is that we also get a shot at ethics reform. It’s a long shot, but that’s more than it looked like we’d have a day earlier. And at the South Carolina State House, that’s what passes for a good week.

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

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