REASONABLE people can disagree over whether Gov. Mark Sanford should resign. My colleague Warren Bolton and I certainly have consumed meeting time struggling with the question.
While Warren, for his own reasons, is a little further along than I am, I get closer every day to saying Mr. Sanford needs to go. I have been hesitant to do that not because I consider his summer actions acceptable or believe he is a good governor or has the moral authority to govern or that there is any possibility that he can accomplish anything good for our state, but because of my concerns that his resignation could skew the critical 2010 gubernatorial election in ways we would regret far beyond 2010.
But while we debate with each other - or even with ourselves -what should happen, the reality is that he does not appear to be going anywhere. That means our most important task is to limit the damage that his presence does to our state, to prevent him from taking lawmakers' focus and time completely away from the pressing needs of our state. Because we simply cannot afford to squander yet another legislative session on Mark Sanford's antics.
Based on what we know (and barring something highly unexpected coming out of the Ethics Commission report, we have all the relevant facts), impeachment is not the answer.
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As irresponsible as the governor's Argentine vacation was, as hypocritical and likely illegal as his taxpayer-funded travel has been and as useless as he is and likely will continue to be as our governor, nothing we have seen so far clears what I believe should be the extremely high hurdle for legislators to override the will of the public, as demonstrated through the 2006 election.
He broke no laws and did not violate the constitution when he secretly left the country. There were no disasters or even problems that occurred because of his absence. Although most of us are disgusted by the reason he skipped out on the state, his offensive personal behavior was just that - personal behavior. And the types of violations the Ethics Commission is looking into are normally punished with relatively small fines, or even reprimands.
But while it seems apparent that House leaders likewise have seen nothing to merit impeachment - that's why they are pinning their decision on whether to launch impeachment proceedings on the ethics investigation - there clearly are some legislators who believe otherwise, and are determined to pursue impeachment. And that is precisely the type of thing that has the potential to keep the Legislature from doing anything - again next year - to address the serious problems that face our state.
So I would offer this modest proposal for legislators to consider when they return to Columbia Tuesday to correct a blunder that is denying federal unemployment checks to thousands of laid-off South Carolinians - a blunder, by the way, that arose at least in part due to the distractions Mr. Sanford created this spring with his petulant fight against requesting federal stimulus funds.
In order to become law, a bill must receive three readings in the House, on separate days, and three in the Senate, also on separate days. Legislative leaders hope to shorten the timeline for the unemployment benefits bill by hijacking a bill that already has cleared some of those hurdles, but still, legislators are likely to have considerable thumb-twiddling time. A rarely used parliamentary procedure called resolving into the Committee of the Whole allows the House to have a free-wheeling debate without a bill before it, and without taking official action. That is precisely what is called for.
Debate the merits of impeachment if they will; I suspect that if they dispassionately consider what an extraordinary thing it is to overrule an election - which is as different from calling on someone to resign as an apple is different from a rock - it will be clear that impeachment is not appropriate.
More importantly, legislators should make their speeches about how irresponsible the governor has been. About how he has disgraced our state and is not fit to be our governor. About his hypocrisy and his horrible judgment. Those are perfectly appropriate - even warranted - statements for our elected leaders to make, and to make formally, not just in a news conference or at a caucus meeting.
In fact, they should go beyond their speeches and approve a resolution of condemnation.
Then they should get on with the task of making real progress in 2010 on attracting jobs to our state and improving the education our state provides to all children and fixing our broken tax system and making our government work for us - in short, doing all the things that they have not been doing during these past seven years, when Job 1 at the State House seemed to be for Mr. Sanford to provoke the Legislature and the Legislature to retaliate, in an unending spiral of destruction.
For those who are still intent on punishing the governor, a good argument could be made that the best way to do that would be to actually accomplish something next year.