TWO STORIES about legislative vote-swapping.
It is 1995, and a stunning series of votes in a joint session of the Legislature elevates the least qualified candidate to the state Supreme Court and re-elects a Circuit Court judge who doesn’t understand the law. Sen. Robert Ford explains to reporters that the Legislative Black Caucus had pledged 18 votes for Republicans’ preferred candidates for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals in return for Republicans’ votes for the Circuit Court judge, who is black.
“All kind of deals was made,” said Mr. Ford, who years later would resign from the Senate and be convicted of diverting campaign funds to personal use. “I had to sell my soul to 10 devils.”
Flash forward three years: Sen. Holly Cork, peeved that the House won’t pass an unconstitutional bill to outlaw fishing near her mother’s dock, places an objection on every House bill on the Senate calendar. This could kill nearly all of those bills, because the Senate won’t even debate a bill with an objection unless it’s important enough to enough senators to merit one of a half-dozen priority debate slots.
She eventually relents, but a tactic is born. Mr. Ford and Sen. Maggie Glover soon place objections on 71 House bills and demand that the House debate bills to spur rural development and make Martin Luther King Jr.’ s birthday a state holiday.
The Legislature responded to the elections by banning vote-swapping for judges. Not for other offices appointed by the Legislature. And certainly not for bills. Just for judicial elections. Senate leaders greeted the bill blockade by calling on the House to relent. House leaders dug in their heels.
In neither case was there ever any suggestion that the maneuvers were illegal at the time they occurred.
So I was more than a little confused last month when freshman Sen. Sandy Senn complained that Sen. Gerald Malloy had offered to trade his vote on her school-threats bill for her vote for a bill to raise magistrates’ pay. (Sen. Malloy denies that happened, and his allies tried very hard to hush Sen. Senn.) More confused still when freshman Sen. William Timmons, trying to stretch a vote to fit the ethics law’s definition of “a thing of value,” suggested that this was illegal. And even more confused when Sen. Timmons reported that “I went to 20-plus senators and said, ‘Hey, is vote-trading illegal?’ And I got a split — ‘absolutely illegal’ and, the other half, ‘it’s absolutely legal.’”
Now, I’m not about to guess how the Supreme Court would rule on the question. But I’m confident that you will not find a single legislator who recalls making it illegal to trade votes on anything other than judicial candidates — unless someone wants to claim he sneaked such a change past his colleagues. Because this is not anything the Legislature has ever knowingly done.
There was nothing good or justifiable about either of those vote-swapping incidents, and the bad side of trading votes extends beyond such extremes. Vote-trading is how we get pork-barrel spending. It’s what drives the Legislature’s practice of bobtailing, or stringing together a series of unrelated bills into a single bill — which is a violation of the state constitution. Many, many compromises include awful provisions.
But while it’s easy to condemn the practice at the extremes, it’s not so easy to figure out where the line is between holding legislation hostage to get your way and using votes as the lubricant of the legislative process. As a friend noted when we were discussing Sen. Senn’s complaint about vote-trading: “That’s the very essence of the legislative process.”
A legislator agrees to support his friend’s bill, in return for his friend’s support of his own bill. Budget-writers increase spending on schools in order to get votes from one group of legislators and on corrections officers to get votes from another group. It is literally the process by which House-Senate conference committees do their work: House negotiators vote to accept the compromise if senators vote for this provision, senators accept it if House members agree to that provision.
Sen. Senn has introduced a bill to make it clear that a vote is a “thing of value” that may not be accepted in return for a vote. Sen. Timmons argues that if the Senate isn’t willing to make that change, it should at least clear up the confusion by declaring that a vote is not a thing that cannot be traded. He’s probably right about that.
But the outrage that bubbled over in the Senate last month seems to have less to do with individuals saying “I’ll vote for your bill if you’ll vote for mine” than with senators saying “I’ll kill your bill unless you support mine.” Although some and perhaps most senators block bills because they truly do oppose them, the Senate has made it far too easy for unscrupulous legislators to engage in this sort of extortion.
The solution is not to try to draw that line between compromise and extortion but to remove the mechanism of extortion: Stop allowing senators to block debate on bills.
The House works through all the bills on its calendar every few weeks, amending many, passing most, killing a few. There’s an endless variety of ways the Senate could do the same thing, and it needs to pick one of them, because that is the only way to prevent individual senators from routinely thwarting the will of the majority.
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.