The S.C. House of Representatives should disperse more power among its members by restricting the terms of its speaker and prohibiting members from having leadership political action committees, a panel proposed Thursday.
The House also would step up its oversight of state agencies if the proposals, made by a panel tasked with reforming House rules, are adopted at the House’s December organization meeting.
“It’s important to change leadership in the speaker’s position periodically,” said acting Speaker Jay Lucas, who is expected to be elected speaker at the December meeting.
The Darlington Republican pushed for term limits in the wake of the fall of former Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. Last week, Harrell, who had been speaker since 2005, pleaded guilty to charges of public corruption and resigned.
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The panel approved limiting the terms of the speaker and speaker pro tempore, the House’s No. 2 position, to five terms, or 10 years. However, whether those term limits will have any real impact is unclear. Only three speakers have served more than 10 years, according to House records.
House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, voted against term limits for the speaker.
Bannister said the speaker already has a term limit of two years, referring to the every two-year election held for the post.
“If we put an arbitrary number on it, what we’re saying is that we don’t have the fortitude to determine when our leaders are not doing what they’re supposed to do and run against them and change the leadership,” said Bannister.
However, no House members publicly revolted against Harrell’s leadership during an almost 2-year-long investigation into corruption allegations against the speaker, one of the most powerful politicians in South Carolina.
The majority leader’s position already is subject to a two-term limit, according to a rule set by the GOP caucus.
Rutherford, who does not have a term limit as minority leader, said if representatives do not like a speaker, then they can vote against the House leader.
However, acting Speaker Lucas supports the change.
“Any change in leadership brings a new enthusiasm,” Lucas said, “It brings a new perspective on the House and the job.”
As evidence of the value of that new energy, Lucas pointed to work done by committees that he named, since becoming acting speaker, to address ethics reform, road needs and House rules.
The rules panel also agreed to recommend the House create a committee to provide oversight to state agencies.
The Department of Administration Act, passed this year, gives control of executive agencies and functions to the governor, Lucas said.
“The legislative branch was exercising a lot of the power that should have been with the governor,” he said, adding the Legislature now must exert oversight authority.
The oversight committee would investigate allegations concerning state agencies, such as those recently made against the Department of Social Services, Lucas said.
That embattled agency has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent child deaths. Its director resigned in June after months of investigation by a Senate panel.
“Obviously, we don’t run DSS,” Lucas said. “But we have a stake in making sure that it’s run correctly for the citizens of this state.”
The special House panel also agreed to prohibit members from having and controlling leadership PACs. A separate panel worked Thursday on the language of legislation that would do the same thing.
A House member who has the ability to give money from a political action committee to other House members has too much power, Lucas said.
“We want to disperse power throughout the body, and make everyone feel that they have an equal opportunity,” he said.
The proposed rule changes also include a sweetener for Democrats, the House’s minority party.
Under a proposal approved by the rules panel, the speaker — a Republican for more than 20 years — would be required to consult with the majority and minority leaders before appointing House members to conference committees that meet with Senate members to hammer out compromises on proposed legislation. The proposal also would requires a member of the minority party on each conference committee.
“It’s important and encourages a greater bipartisan atmosphere in the chamber,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.