Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: A State House turned upside down?

tglantz@thestate.com

IN FEBRUARY, the Senate tied itself in knots for weeks as extremists fought to let batterers keep their guns, rather than giving them up as part of their criminal sentence for killing or trying to kill their loved ones.

On Wednesday, the House passed the gun restriction unanimously.

In March, the House, backed by the state’s business community and overwhelming public sentiment, voted 87-20 to raise the gas tax. It’s the only net tax increase that body has supported, other than the cigarette tax, since back in 1987, when it was still controlled by Democrats.

At week’s end, the Senate was still debating whether the Transportation Department actually needs any more money to tackle a many-billions-of-dollars backlog on road and bridge repairs. At least 20 Senate Republicans want to cut the income tax by slightly more than they would raise the gas tax. So it’s hard to envision a plan to actually raise taxes that could generate a majority, much less the 31 of 46 votes that would be needed to overcome the governor’s promised veto on anything that doesn’t cut taxes by more than three times as much as it raises them.

Meantime, the House sent two important Senate bills back across the lobby after tacking on language that only a criminal defense attorney could love — language that the Senate seems likely to reject in one bill and that it already has rejected on the other, on advice of the criminal defense attorney who sponsored the bill.

And I’m left wondering if I’ve drifted into some alternate universe. A universe where it’s the Senate that’s ultraconservative. And it’s the House that’s in bed with criminal defense attorneys.

I would never characterize the House or the Senate as liberal, but the Senate has always been … less conservative. Far less. And not simply on a normal liberal-conservative continuum. Less given to either the libertarianism or the tin-foil-hat brand of conservatism that makes real conservatives blush. Certainly less given to the blog-driven radicalism that masquerades as conservatism.

And although criminal defense attorneys have far too much sway in both bodies, they’ve always been most welcomed in the Senate. Yet I’ve never seen such an audacious back-to-back power grab as what came out of the House: First, it voted to write into state law a requirement that the state Law Enforcement Training Council “consult” with the S.C. Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys in writing procedures for police use of body cameras. Then it voted to make every police department in the state hire a social worker or counselor to tell police whether they ought to arrest anyone in a domestic violence case; the defense attorneys also would by law play a role in training and procedures for these risk assessors.

Now, it’s possible that these switch-ups are a fluke. There’s probably no one who’s more irritated by the defense-attorneys-empowerment proposals than Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, and he predicts that any idea of up turning into down and down into up will fade away by the end of the session, after the Senate works through a compromise on roads and his domestic-violence bill is signed into law.

And it’s not like the House has given up its own brand of radical pandering. It was the House, after all, that passed a bill this spring to do away with criminal background checks and training requirements before people can carry concealed weapons. And there was that paranoid anti-Sharia-law bill — although representatives didn’t manage to get back to debating that measure all week.

I asked several senators about this series of role-reversal votes, and I got responses ranging from blank stares to a treatise on the sorting out that is still occurring after the departure of Glenn McConnell, who as president pro tempore worked out the problems that got worked out in the Senate; I think that’s a fascinating topic, but I can’t see how it plays into this particular phenomenon — unless it’s that Glenn wouldn’t have brooked such behavior.

The one theme that ran through most of the answers — the one that plays into my theory as to what’s going on here — concerns the power the Senate rules give individual senators to block whatever they feel like blocking. Some suggested that anything that looks strange doesn’t actually reflect the Senate; it merely reflects a few strange senators.

I would amend the rules argument to say the element at play is the power that the Senate rules and Senate customs and senators themselves give individual senators to block whatever they feel like blocking. Yes, there is a rule that requires a majority vote to end a filibuster (I think it was a two-thirds vote when I first encountered the Senate). But it’s the senators who refuse to end a filibuster. It’s the senators who follow an antiquated custom of refusing to debate a bill just because a single senator says he doesn’t want it debated. It’s the senators who spend the first four and a half months of the session adjourning every day after a couple of hours, and let the calendar get clogged up with particularly controversial bills that create a logjam they either can’t get through or else have to give up way too much in order to get through in the final few weeks.

But I’m getting off point. Aside from Sen. Martin’s suggestion that there’s really not anything new going on, I didn’t hear anything that contradicted my theory that the alternate universe formed at the intersection of two important political changes: The Senate’s Crazy Caucus has continued to become even crazier, and the House is now led by Speaker Jay Lucus, a pragmatist who worries more about getting things done than about protecting Republicans from getting primaried … and whatever else it was that Bobby Harrell spent his time worrying about.

The Lucas change has to be seen as a good thing by anyone who wants our Legislature to deal with our state’s problems rather than merely engaging in political theater; the question is how long that can last if House Republicans not only get primaried but get replaced — with new legislators who think the same way as the Senate’s increasingly vocal Crazy Caucus.

Whether the Senate remains upside down depends on how often senators continue to allow the tail to wag the dog.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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