Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Legislators behaving ... nicely?

WHEN I asked Larry Martin whether castigations of the governor already had begun during the brief few minutes the Senate had been in session before breaking for lunch Tuesday, the chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee immediately shushed me.

"We've about got everybody under control," he said. "Don't give them any ideas."

Not that anyone needed to.

Last week's two-day session of the Legislature will come to be known as the Boeing session, but it started off as something very different. If ever there was a set-up for a name-calling, finger-pointing, score-cheap-political-points session of the Legislature, it was last week. There were plenty of juicy targets, plenty of people who had every right to blame others for the unemployment benefits mess that lawmakers had been summoned back to town to clean up, and plenty more - including what, a half-dozen gubernatorial candidates? - who easily could have decided to capitalize on that mess to try to grab the attention of the abundant media on hand for just such potentialities.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter could point a finger at majority Republicans for letting federal unemployment benefits run out on thousands of laid-off South Carolinians by refusing to even give a hearing to her bill that would have prevented the problem ever happening.

Rep. Kenny Bingham could point a finger at the Republicans and Democrats who defeated his Employment Security Commission reform bill that incorporated Ms. Cobb-Hunter's fix, because they wanted to protect the thoroughly discredited status quo.

Democrats in the Senate, though they had not tried to fix the problem themselves, could castigate majority Republicans for allowing the jobless glitch to go unfixed.

Anyone in either body or either party could blister the leadership at the Employment Security Commission for not lifting a finger to let legislators know they needed to make a technical change in the law - or Gov. Mark Sanford for creating such a combative situation with the commission and the Legislature that few noticed when others brought up the topic.

Any single legislator could gum up the whole process by raising an objection to fast-tracking the unemployment benefits fix or that economic incentive package that might just have become the final ingredient necessary for the biggest economic development get in state history.

And all that was without even considering the whole Sanford mess, which any senator could easily spend hours bloviating about, and which Rep. Greg Delleney could force an indirect vote on simply by moving to amend the special-session rules to allow his impeachment effort to get underway.

But none of that happened.

I'm not saying that lawmakers kept their pettiness to a reasonably low level. I'm saying there wasn't a single hint of an attempt by anyone to hijack the process for personal aggrandizement or political gain.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell did note that the jobless benefits screw-up was yet more evidence that the Employment Security Commission needed an overhaul. But it was a single sentence, and at this point it's hard to see how anyone could defend the way that agency has been run. Although there certainly will be differences of opinion on what kind of reform is needed, it's hard to imagine anyone standing up in January and saying, "Nothing should be changed at that agency."

More significantly, his comments came in virtually the same breath as his praise of Rep. Cobb-Hunter for having tried in the spring to head off this problem. He even made a point of saying he wished lawmakers had been able to use her bill to make the fix, but for procedural reasons, doing so would have added several days, and dollars, to the session. (Though their names won't be on the bill, the sponsors of the amendment that became the bill to fix the problem were Ms. Cobb-Hunter, House Democratic Leader Harry Ott, Mr. Bingham and Rep. Bill Sandifer, whose committee should have handled the matter.)

I'm sure Mr. Harrell's magnanimity was influenced by the Boeing deal he was working feverishly to pull off - and by the item John O'Connor posted on thestate.com just before the House convened, quoting Rep. Cobb-Hunter as saying the House had ignored her bill because she's a Democrat. But that doesn't take anything away from his behavior; if anything, it demonstrates that he has sense enough to try to put out a potential political firestorm before it gets out of control.

For her part, Ms. Cobb-Hunter, who can deliver some of the most pointed speeches in either chamber, later told The Post and Courier of Charleston: "Most of us can share in some of the blame. This is not the time for blaming. Today was about fixing the problem."

And creating opportunity.

Traditionally, legislators have genuflected to requests from the Commerce Department for special hush-hush tax packages that the agency says it needs to lure a big fish to the state, or keep one here. In fact, I often have been disturbed that they were far too eager on their targeted tax breaks and the secrecy that surrounds them. But with lawmakers already seeing red over the anti-incentives governor even before his summer of troubles, some had begun to suggest that any requests from his Commerce Department represented Mr. Sanford's problem, not the Legislature's. Not so last week, as lawmakers whisked through the Boeing package - which at the time no one in the world could have felt entirely confident would pay off - without a whisper of bickering or even the remotest thoughts of trying to "bring Sanford down" or whatever else you might call it.

And as if to make sure that nobody missed the "there are bigger issues than our partisan and personal differences" tone, Democratic Rep. James Smith, an Afghanistan combat veteran, led the House in a moment of silence for Republican Rep. Ted Pitts, who couldn't attend the session because he has been called up for training for his own Afghanistan deployment in January.

I don't want to make too much of how smoothly things went last week. First and foremost, the prospect of landing Boeing was a powerful incentive to stay focused and put on a good show for any executives who might be watching for assurances that the state wasn't run by a bunch of yahoos. Second, lawmakers had to come back to town because they didn't fix the unemployment benefits problem during the regular session, and they certainly engage in silly partisanship and petty personal vendettas far too often. Third, civility and the absence of rancor are not actually rarities at the State House. The fact is that the vast majority of bills that pass do so with no name-calling, no partisanship and little or no opposition. Even when there are differences of opinion, they usually are aired in a civil way.

But we have just been through a summer that plumbed new depths of incivility nationally, and here at home, the opportunity for cheap shots, rancor and worse was particularly high. Against that backdrop, our legislators behaved like grown-ups who understood they had serious work to do, and they just did it. And our entire state stands to benefit from that far more than any of them could have believed possible.

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