SEVEN MONTHS to the day after SCANA and Santee Cooper announced that they were walking away from the nuclear construction project they had sunk 10 years and $9 billion into, Speaker Jay Lucas stood before the S.C. House to present his plan to end, at least temporarily, SCE&G’s nuclear surcharge.
He would spend nearly 30 minutes explaining his bill, which the House would vote 114-1 to pass. But before even hinting at the details, Mr. Lucas made the point of commending “the Republicans and the Democrats in this room, for showing leadership on this issue over the last seven months.”
He praised Reps. Peter McCoy and Russell Ott, the Republican and Democrat who served as chairman and vice chairman of the special panel he appointed to investigate the fiasco. Then he called special attention to House Republican Leader Gary Simrill and House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford “as they stand here showing that the South Carolina House of Representatives, on issues that affect the citizens of the state of South Carolina, is not a partisan body, but a body that can stand together to come up with real solutions, to real problems, this problem being the most difficult I’ve faced in this body in my twenty years.”
If it felt a bit like melodrama to State House insiders — Mr. Lucas was stating what was apparent, and unsurprising, to anyone who watches the Legislature closely — it served as an important reminder to anyone whose understanding of politics is based on Washington and informed by the talking heads of cable news, who apparently are paid to convince viewers that the one true god is the party to which they have pledged their fealty.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature are engaged in a Kumbaya lovefest. They have plenty of differences — on how to spend tax dollars, and how many to spend, on how to improve our schools, and how to balance jobs with the environment, and culture-war issues, and guns. My gracious guns.
And Mr. Rutherford, the House Democratic leader, can be abrasively partisan. But his barbs tend to be about the actual topics that are being debated, rather than fantasy complaints of the sort we see from the head of the state Democratic Party. (And, I suspect, the Republican Party, though the GOP chairman hasn’t said anything lately that has tempted me to break my pledge to ignore them both.)
And it’s true that there has been a definite uptick over the past 30 years in rank partisanship in the Legislature — with too many bills and amendments offered not in hopes that they will become law, but to force members of the other party to choose between voting in a way that will hurt them in a general election or a way that will hurt them in a primary.
But it’s nothing like what we see in Washington, where it feels like every bill and amendment is introduced for that purpose. Where co-sponsoring a bill with someone of the other party or, gasp, working on a compromise will get you primaried.
The vast majority of bills pass unanimously or nearly so.
Of course reducing the partisanship is easier — and in the interests of the minority party — when one party has a huge majority that it isn’t worried about losing, as is the case in the S.C. House and Senate. It’s also easier — and in the interests of the majority party — to work cooperatively when a tiny minority (sometimes as small as one) can block all but the most important bills, as in the Senate. Those elements train lawmakers to work out differences instead of being obstructionist. To get something done instead of sinking into stalemate.
Again, the situation is by no means perfect in South Carolina, where working things out often means working things out between extremist conservatives and rational conservatives, where liberals and even moderates sometimes long for a little more dysfunction.
But read through the House and Senate journals, or review a random selection of bills that pass either body, and you’ll discover that the vast majority of them pass unanimously or nearly so. Many deal with the mundane of government that simply must be addressed in order for government to operate smoothly. And a lot of hugely significant legislation passes this way.
The nuclear fiasco is the most dramatic example of the bipartisanship, perhaps because it’s the most dramatic and significant and difficult problem the Legislature has faced in decades.
And the bipartisanship is bicameral. The biggest disagreement is between the House and the Senate — and within the Senate, where some senators who want most to protect SCANA are Republicans, and some are Democrats. Where some Republicans take the most pro-ratepayer position possible, even if they know it will backfire, as do some Democrats. Where some of the senators seeking to help ratepayers as much as possible without creating constitutional problems that could end up hurting them are Republicans; some are Democrats. (It was the same way, by the way, with last year’s gas tax debate.)
The Senate’s V.C. Summer investigation is also led by a Republican and a Democrat, and more dramatically than in the House: The special committee is co-chaired by Republican Leader Shane Massey and Democratic Leader Nikki Setzler, whose jobs are to keep their fellow partisans organized.
If the Congress wanted to serve the public rather than the parties, its members could learn a lesson from our legislators. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think they’re interested in being taught.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.