KENNY BINGHAM begs to differ.
The Lexington businessman, who serves in the unenviable position of House Republican leader at a time when House Republicans are talking seriously about impeaching the Republican governor, called the other day to complain that I had maligned the House when I wrote that Mark Sanford's presence in office is not keeping the Legislature from accomplishing anything because the Legislature doesn't do anything during the July-through-December "off" season.
Complain probably is a strong word, and so is malign, because Mr. Bingham is a very nice person, and he agreed with most of the points I had made. (I made the point about the Legislature being out of session not so much to discredit the claims by Mr. Bingham and House Speaker Bobby Harrell that the governor had become too big a distraction but rather to tamp down public demands that legislators stop "wasting time" and get back to the business of the state.)
I thought Mr. Bingham made one very good point about distractions and had one fascinating observation about the governor. Beyond that, as the person who wrote the letter urging Gov. Sanford to resign, signed by 61 of the 72 House Republicans, he offers a valuable perspective on what's driving the people who will decide whether the governor is impeached.
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His very good point: The distraction problem is less that legislators won't stop talking and thinking about the governor, and exploiting this situation for their own personal gain, as I had described it, than that they can't escape it. Every time there's a new development, constituents call or e-mail or stop them at dinner or after church and ask what they think about it, what they're going to do about it.
I sympathize. I don't think I have been anywhere since this thing broke back in June that someone didn't want to talk about the governor. To some extent, people genuinely want to discuss this. It's also an easy topic to bring up, and social situations demand easy small talk. I suspect that's driving a lot of what legislators are hearing, at least in social situations, but that doesn't change the fact that they have to keep talking about it.
That demand for a response, Mr. Bingham said, is what drove the Republican Caucus to ask the governor to resign.
Of course, it's not particularly important to the life of the state that people make casual conversation about the governor's future instead of the weather or Wall Street or Gamecock football. But if you're a legislator who's already nervous about how your position on the governor will affect your own re-election hopes, it's hard to distinguish between small talk and implied political demands. Besides, Mr. Bingham says, legislators would like to be talking to their constituents about other things - so they can try to accomplish other things.
Mr. Bingham likens the legislative session to a football game: You don't wait until the game starts to put together an offense or plan the plays. Likewise, legislators - or at least legislative leaders - don't wait until January to set an agenda and vet legislation.
"Now is when we meet with groups, identify problems, try to figure out, these are the things that people want done, and we try to set it in a sequential order," he said. "If it's not done before January, rarely is it done. I don't meet with groups in January; these ideas don't get vetted out in session. When I go in in January, I've got my game plan. When you're on the floor, you're dealing with all these others bills, and it's a lot to digest. Without that leadership and planning, it'll be a chaotic mess."
Please restrain yourselves. Mr. Bingham did concede the obvious point: Even when there was none of the current unpleasantness to distract the leadership, legislative sessions often have tended to be a chaotic mess - or at least not to produce the progress on substantive issues that he says is so difficult to produce when the leadership is distracted.
Then he made an observation that has often popped into my head but that I had not been quite ready to put forward. "He does lead," Mr. Bingham said of the governor. "But if you really look at what the governor has accomplished, he doesn't care for us to do anything." In other words, when the Legislature accomplishes nothing, Mr. Sanford has succeeded. It would follow then, if that's the case, that by staying in office, by focusing everybody's attention on him, the governor will get precisely what he wants out of the 2010 legislative session: nothing.
Mr. Bingham says he is determined to prevent that.
"Whatever it takes, we have to come out, and we have to lead, and I've told that to the speaker," he said. "It's just hard to deal with anything. We're coming to the point where it chokes us off, regardless of guilt or innocence, just the cloud that surrounds us.
"We want to not be involved in this any more than we've got to. There is no win here. All this does is hurt us. It hurts us as a state. It hurts us as a party. It hurts you as leadership. You're going to make people mad because everybody understands this, and everybody has a position on this issue. Because they have an opinion, it divides people."
Which is the main reason why, like a lot of South Carolinians, House Republicans would just like for Mr. Sanford to go away.