Scoppe: A lesson in governing

Associate EditorOctober 18, 2013 

Cindi Ross Scoppe

THE FIRST thing that struck me about our meeting this week with Columbia City Council Member Leona Plaugh was how she went on and on about sometimes-obscure initiatives she was so proud the City Council and the city government were undertaking.

It’s not the sort of thing you expect from someone who’s on the losing end of most of the council’s 5-2 votes, who too often lives up to the description her opponent in next month’s election gives of an incumbent who just says no, of someone who gets behind some truly bizarre ideas offered up by her fellow just-say-no council member Moe Baddourah.

Rather, it’s reminiscent of the monologues you typically hear from too-comfortable incumbents who don’t have much to talk about in the way of their own accomplishments so instead try to impress people with all of those ideas other people came up with and they voted for.

What came next was even more striking — not so much for what it tells us about Ms. Plaugh but for what it reminds us about our political system.

Ms. Plaugh, you might recall, helped lead the opposition to Mayor Steve Benjamin’s rush job on the contract the city signed this summer promising tens of millions of dollars in incentives to Bob Hughes in return for his developing the old State Hospital property on Bull Street in accordance with city desires. She criticized the way the deal was rammed through so quickly that people didn’t know what was in it and she criticized what she did know about its contents. And she was happy to repeat those criticisms when she met with us.

But when my colleague Warren Bolton asked her what happens next, she said, essentially, we make it work.

“Once you vote for something and it’s done, it’s done,” she said. “We all need to get on the bandwagon now and hope it’s the best it can be.”

A few minutes later, when she was talking about her surprise at ending up on the losing end of a 2010 vote to turn control of the Columbia Police Department over to the Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, and we asked why she hadn’t brought that idea back up as the department’s woes have mounted, she recalled all the debate and public hearings that had preceded that vote.

“I don’t think you continually go back and harp on things that this council has already voted on,” she explained, “unless someone on the other side is ready to change their position on it.”

Well.

Then we got to the city’s decision this spring to purchase the Palmetto Compress warehouse over her objections, and the news in that morning’s paper that a local development group had tentatively agreed to buy the property, at a small profit to the city. And there wasn’t even a hint of sour grapes when she told us, “I hope I lose my bet with the mayor and that that will be a roaring success.”

What put an exclamation point on all of this was the timing. Our conversation with Ms. Plaugh took place at the very moment that what passes for grownups in Washington were racing the clock to reach a can-kicking agreement to keep the federal government out of an elective default. An agreement that we weren’t at all certain they’d be able to sell to their colleagues.

Which is just mind-boggling.

We used to call people who say the sorts of things Ms. Plaugh was saying the loyal opposition, which Merriam Webster defines as “a minority party esp. in a legislative body whose opposition to the party in power is constructive, responsible, and bounded by loyalty to fundamental interests and principles.”

It used to be taken for granted that whichever party was in the minority would act as such. Those in the minority took seriously their duty to raise concerns about the direction in which the majority was taking us, to offer alternatives and modifications to make the majority’s initiatives less objectionable and, whether they succeeded in doing that or not, to help find potential problems so that even if they objected to the laws that passed, those laws worked as well as they could.

It’s a concept that no longer exists in Washington, outside the occasional Senate gang, and is falling out of favor at the State House, replaced with open disdain for the idea of even talking with people in the other party, much less accepting defeat and moving on. Replaced with a determination to be philosophically “pure” — to fight any and every thing the majority proposes — and to force the majority to take increasingly extreme positions, in hopes that voters will be repelled by the majority extremism and instead embrace the extremism of the minority.

Oh, there are still people who talk a good game about acting as the loyal opposition; a lot of Democrats in the General Assembly fall into this category. Increasingly, though, it’s just talk.

Indeed, there are plenty of people, including some members of the City Council, who would say that’s all it is with Ms. Plaugh — that her general approach to her job is quite the opposite of loyal opposition. And they might be right.

But on this occasion, we hadn’t asked Ms. Plaugh to talk about what she sees as her role as one of the two conservative members of the City Council. She wasn’t weaving her comments together into a loyal-opposition narrative. She was simply talking about three important decisions she had opposed and, in so doing, demonstrating what it means to be the loyal opposition: to object when you think the majority is taking the wrong course and, if you fail to stop the proposal, to work to make the best of that policy or program that you opposed.

This shouldn’t be striking or notable, and certainly not praiseworthy. We ought to be able to take for granted that those in the minority would act as the loyal opposition. We also ought to be able to take for granted that when they do that, those in the majority would acknowledge that we get better policy when we accept constructive criticism and suggestions.

Imagine, if you can, how much healthier our republic, and our public, would be today if Republicans had offered constructive suggestions during the debate over Obamacare, and if Democrats had been willing to accept those suggestions in the spirit in which they were offered.

But of course we can’t imagine such a thing. We can’t take for granted that those in the majority or the minority will act in good faith to play the roles a functional republic demands of them. We can’t even really hope for it.

We can just be pleasantly surprised when we see it. And wish, perhaps irrationally, that we could see a little more of it.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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