Editor’s note: The following column was submitted by Nerve Citizen Reporter Larry Barnett of Fort Mill, who has been pushing for changes in S.C. Senate rules. For more information about his initiative, see last week’s Nerve story.
During the 2011-2012 legislative session, the S.C. House passed bills addressing personal income taxes, small-business tax reform, sales-tax exemption reform, shortening the legislative session, school choice, education funding reform and spending caps. While not always perfect, most of these bills represented at least some movement in a positive direction. All died in the S.C. Senate. Similar to the U.S. Senate, the S.C. Senate has become a bottle neck that chokes off desperately needed reforms.
One of the major reasons behind the failure of the S.C. Senate to move forward in a positive direction is the strange and archaic rules under which it conducts business. The most egregious rules are:
- By the use of “desire to be present” and “minority reports,” one senator can force a bill to the “contested calendar,” which pretty much assures that the bill will never be voted on.
- Committee chairmen have the power to hold a bill in committee indefinitely. The only mechanism to get a bill out of committee – “special order” – requires a two-thirds vote, which is extremely difficult to obtain.
- Committee chairmen are selected based on seniority and alphabetical order, not qualifications and ability. Senators avoid being in a position to not vote with one of their colleagues, which would violate their collegial relationship.
- Special-order bills and contested bills are the last order of business.
The Senate currently has 18 Democrats and 28 Republicans. However, a number of Republicans generally referred to as “RINOs” by fiscal conservatives and “moderates” by liberals, vote with fellow Republicans on social issues; and vote with Democrats on fiscal and regulatory type issues. Consequently, almost any bill will have a substantial number of members who object to it. That, combined with the rules noted above, result in the Senate being unable to pass legislation in a timely and responsible manner.
The rules are reviewed and revised at the beginning of each two-year session during the initial organizational session, which occurred last week. Despite criticism from members of the House, including Speaker Bobby Harrell, and pleas from the activists around the state, the Senate made no meaningful reforms in their rules. Changes were opposed by both Democrats and conservative senators, as either can be in a minority position depending on the type of bill.
Many senators like the ability to hide from up-or-down votes on bills by placing them on the contested status or leaving them hidden in committee. Committee chairmen like the power they obtain by using their ability to bury a bill in committee as leverage to force other senators to vote in a way they normally would not.
In short, nothing has changed; and the Senate is still a place where “bills go to die.” This does not bode well of the citizens of this state.