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State Senate rules impede reform

December 31, 2012 

I’ve been watching the South Carolina legislature for several years now, and I’ve seen the same scenario play out over and over again — in taxes, government restructuring, education or just about anything else.

A sensible bill will make it out of the House, only to languish in the Senate and, weeks or months later, expire. Occasionally a reform will pass the Senate and die in the House, but far more often it happens the other way around.

After several years of wondering why this was, I decided to study the General Assembly’s parliamentary rules. And what I discovered goes a long way toward explaining this anomaly.

Parliamentary rules are intended to establish order and fairness; in the South Carolina Senate, however, many rules seem to be there for the sole purpose of giving individual senators more power.

Here are a few such rules, and how senators should change them:

First, the Senate operates under an unwritten rule known as the Contested Calendar rule.

By tradition, if one senator has any objection to a bill — and virtually every bill has at least one foe among the chamber’s 46 members — he can state that he “wishes to be present” when the bill is debated on the floor; at that point the bill is put on the Contested Calendar.

Alternatively, if a bill passes out of committee, one member on the losing side can issue a “minority report” on the bill, and it, too, is put on the Contested Calendar. Once it’s there, the objecting senator has to be present in the chamber when the bill comes to the floor.

If the senator is not present, it goes back to the bottom of the list. In effect, all the objecting senator has to do is leave the floor when the bill comes up, and it won’t be debated.

In South Carolina, one senator has the power to kill a bill or hold it hostage until his demands are met.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, this traditional rule is unique to South Carolina, and in recent years it has been abused by many individual senators who simply want to prevent bills they don’t like from getting a hearing.

The Senate recently amended the rule, limiting the number of bills any one senator can “contest” to three. That’s not a serious reform; the Contested Calendar rule is flagrantly un-democratic and should be discarded altogether.

Another rule (Rule 19) states that committee chairmen are determined by party seniority. This can and does result in lesser qualified people being placed in highly influential and powerful positions.

Each chairman should be selected from the majority party by majority vote of those serving on the committees.

Rule 22 is another hindrance to open debate: it allows bills to be “buried” in committee with virtually no chance of recall. Every year, literally scores of sensible bills with wide support die this way. If the committee chairman and a few allies don’t like it, they don’t have to take it up.

In order to get the bill out of committee, bill’s sponsor must persuade half the full Senate — 24 members — or, after five legislative days, three quarters of the Senate — 35 members — to vote to recall the bill from committee and give it a hearing on the floor.

Except under highly unusual circumstances, that is practically impossible – and as a result the bill’s opponents can kill it by never allowing the Senate a vote on it. This rule should be modified to allow the bill’s sponsor to ask for an up-or-down vote at the committee level.

The rule could include a reasonable time frame during which the bill would have to receive a committee vote.

The principle here is simple: lawmakers shouldn’t have the power to kill legislation simply by ignoring it.

Finally, Rule 7B allows senators to introduce guests to the chamber. Anyone who has ever attended a session of the Senate will know how frustrating it is to see important debates constantly interrupted by these feel-good “introductions” in which senators recognize family members, friends, constituents from their districts, staffers from local chambers of commerce, high school sports teams — you name it.

These introductions waste enormous amounts of time and they interrupt important debates for no good reason. Moreover, you can’t help but think this parliamentary “rule” is used as a campaign tool — making people from back home feel important by being recognized from the floor of the Senate.

If senators want to campaign, they should do so on their own time — and on their own dime.

My hope is that senators will attempt to make their chamber a more open lawmaking assembly. They should bear in mind: power doesn’t belong to individual senators and committee chairman.

It belongs to the people.

Larry Barnett is a retired engineer living in Fort Mill. He is a member of the South Carolina Policy Council and a Citizen Reporter for TheNerve.org, a Policy Council publication.

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