Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Why SC legislators can’t do other things as fast as they brought down flag

The Rev. Kylon Middleton supports Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of Sen. Clementa Pinckney, as Sen. Gerald Malloy welcomes her to the SC Senate last month after the upper chamber made quick work of passing legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.
The Rev. Kylon Middleton supports Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of Sen. Clementa Pinckney, as Sen. Gerald Malloy welcomes her to the SC Senate last month after the upper chamber made quick work of passing legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. tglantz@thestate.com

EIGHTEEN DAYS after Gov. Nikki Haley called on legislators to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, it was folded and furled and carted off to the Confederate Relic Room. But the calendar doesn’t capture the speed of this action: Because of a quirk of timing, the Legislature was in session just five of those days. And under our state constitution, five days is the absolute minimum required to take a bill from introduction to enactment.

The Legislature’s dizzying dispatch has raised a fair question from both supporters and opponents of the change: Why can’t the Legislature get other things done that quickly? Why did lawmakers have a whole year and still come away without a roads plan? Or ethics reform? Or … pick your topic.

Clearly, there was an unprecedented sense of urgency about the flag, nearly unanimous support for action and only one clear path forward. Unlike roads and ethics and repairing a school system that deprives poor kids of a decent education, this was not a complicated problem that had dozens of possible solutions — although die-hard flag supporters tried desperately to turn it into one.

But urgency, simplicity and even near unanimity do not always guarantee action — much less rapid action. At least as important was another quirk related to that quirk of timing: an extremely limited agenda.

By law, the Legislature adjourns every year on the first Thursday of June. By a two-thirds vote, lawmakers can — and nearly always do — pass a “sine die resolution” allowing them to come back to wrap up loose ends. The resolution delineates what can be discussed — mainly conference committee reports, vetoes and congratulatory resolutions.

Sine die is Latin for without day. It means without any date being designated for resumption, even though the Legislature often designates its next meeting date in the sine die resolution. In South Carolina it is pronounced (incorrectly) sigh knee die.

That resolution can be amended by a two-thirds vote, and the day after Gov. Haley called for the flag’s removal, the Legislature — back in town to adopt the budget conference report — added the Confederate flag to the list. Lawmakers also finished work on all the conference reports, so when they returned after the July 4 holiday, the only items they could debate were budget vetoes and the flag.

That limited agenda is the essential difference between the flag and anything else, because the most powerful tool a legislator has to block a bill isn’t filibustering that bill. It’s not even the single-senator veto — which allows a single senator to block debate on a bill unless two-thirds of his colleagues vote to override his objection. Both of those techniques are easy enough to overcome on their own that flag supporters didn’t even bother trying to use them.

The most powerful tool an opponent has — the reason a single senator can practically shut down the Senate, for days, weeks or even months — is a crowded agenda, or calendar. With up to a dozen controversial bills ahead of the one he wants to kill, he can start at the top and use every one of those bills as a stalking horse — dragging out debate on the first bill for as long as possible, then the next bill and on and on. Even if he’s the only one who opposes his target bill, other senators object to other bills, so they in turn help with his stall.

In fairness, these stalls were not what killed the ethics bill. The ethics bill died because half the Senate adamantly opposed allowing quasi-independent investigations of legislators’ compliance with the law, and the other half adamantly opposed passing a bill that did not include that.

I can’t even say for sure that the stalls killed the roads bill; again, there was no clear majority for any one plan. But it’s easy to imagine that something could have been worked out if the Senate had been able to get to that bill sooner — and stalls on other bills were designed precisely to prevent this from happening.

The Senate is the place where bills go to die. The House limits how long a bill can be debated, and it routinely works all the way through its calendar, passing or killing even the most controversial bills. But the short calendar even played a role in the House’s quick action, because it allowed the majority to work around a rule that normally requires bills to be sent to committee if a single representative insists on it.

Now I don’t think it’s generally a good idea to skip committee; mistakes get made when there isn’t the opportunity for a debate that’s a little less in the limelight and a little more focused on detail.

But even allowing an extra week or two for committee vetting, there’s a lot to be said for actually debating, amending and passing (or killing) a bill within a week or two after it’s reported out of committee — as the House does regularly, and the Senate does on routine, noncontroversial bills.

There’s no magic bullet to solve the Senate problem; various techniques have been tried over the years, and they all have failed. They have failed because not enough senators have the will to stop the delays. And that’s because most senators are more interested in preserving for themselves the power to kill bills that the majority supports than they are in stopping other senators from doing that.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

  Comments