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Citizen Reporter Larry Barnett Works to Reform S.C. Senate Rules That Stymie Change

Up next on the agenda for Nerve Citizen Reporter Larry Barnett is tackling a procedural morass in the S.C. Senate where good bills go to die.

With the help of Senate Rules Committee member Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, Barnett has taken several steps to better understand how the Senate operates and push for reform of the chamber’s more easily misused rules.

Numbering 54, not including subcategories, the Senate rules govern the chamber’s operations. The rules cover everything from how senators are expected to conduct themselves on the floor during session to the procedures of the Senate Ethics Committee.

Barnett, a Fort Mill resident and president of GPS Conservatives for Action, hardly stands alone in arguing that the rules grant senators disproportionate power and are at risk of abuse by members who can use them to delay bills.

For instance, Rule 32, which deals with the Senate’s contested bill calendar, can be cited to prevent the chamber from discussing a bill if a senator who is challenging the legislation is not present.

This year, a single senator’s objections killed a bill, H. 3235 by Republican Rep. Bill Taylor of Aiken County, to significantly strengthen the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

 “I found out that this rule (32) is a carryover from the 18th century,” Barnett says.

Gregory elaborated in an email to Barnett:

“The origin of the practice was that travel time was much slower then, so senators would ask that certain legislation not be debated and voted on until they got to the chamber from their home counties,” Gregory told Barnett, who became a Citizen Reporter for The Nerve earlier this year.

“Travel time has been reduced considerably in modern times, but the pace of the Senate remains as slow as it ever has been.”

Continuing, Gregory said, “Most every senator, including myself, has resorted to this at one time or another, but there are a good number who abuse it on a regular basis.”

Barnett says S.C. Senate rules, like most other state senates’, refer to Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice for matters not addressed by the precepts. However, unlike most other states and the federal government, South Carolina uses the 1801 version of the manual instead of the final 1812 revision.

“That was simply the one we agreed to,” explains Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and the former Rules Committee chairman.

“There’s been a lot of discussions about the single-objections rule,” he says, referring to Rule 32.

Martin concedes that this rule grants individual senators a lot of power, but he says the measure is often employed with good intentions. “They (a senator) may just want to make a call, get more information or speak to a director or agency to check to see how a particular legislation would impact them,” he says.

The rules are up for revision every four years, according to Martin, after an election for the S.C. Senate, whose 46 members are all on the ballot at the same time. “Before we can do anything, we have to adopt the rules,” says Martin. “It’s a process. You’ve got to build consensus.”

Changing a rule requires a two-thirds vote by the Senate.

After the Nov. 6 election, the Senate is expected to review its rules again when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Barnett says he aims to get the public more involved in that process and “working towards helping them draft rules.”

Gregory says Rule 32 should be “at the top of the list” of practices that need to be revised.

“The Senate should remain the deliberative body, but that should be accomplished through legitimate filibusters and countering cloture (debate-ending) votes, not by allowing one senator to hold up a bill indefinitely,” the senator says.  

Barnett points to the rules dictating the proceedings of the Senate Ethics Committee, which self-polices members of the chamber, as another area that should be looked at.

“We are 45th in the nation for ethics,” Barnett says, referring to South Carolina’s showing earlier this year in the “State Integrity Investigation,” a project by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International that graded states based on their “laws and practices that deter corruption and promote accountability and openness.”

Barnett further points out an advantage certain Senate members gain simply through seniority.

The longest-serving senators are given precedence when choosing open committee seats; and, within a committee, the senior member from the majority party is made chair.

As an alternative, Barnett suggests that the chairman “needs to be elected by committee members or we need terms, maybe a maximum of four years.”

Varying numbers of required votes is another issue that concerns Barnett. “The number of votes surprises me,” he says.

For instance, Rule 22, which covers referring bills to, and recalling them from, a committee, requires a three-fourths vote, or 35 members. Rule 31, meanwhile, allows the Senate to go into executive session with a two-thirds vote, or 31 members.

“There are about eight situations where the numbers are different,” Barnett says. “I understand when it takes a unanimous vote to get something done, but some of the other stuff seems weird and inconsistent.”

Barnett says he hopes to speak with other senators about revising the rules, too. “A lot of what I have are questions,” he says. “I don’t want to change something to have unintended consequences.”

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.

Accountability Citizen Reporter Ethics General Assembly Legislation Transparency

Center for Public Integrity S.C. Senate Global Integrity Larry Barnett Public Radio International Sen. Larry Martin Sen. Greg Gregory State Integrity Investigation