SC House Speaker: Most Powerful, Least Accountable
By Ashley Landess
Why does it matter that House Speaker Bobby Harrell hasn’t responded to charges he violated ethics laws? Because he has more power than any politician in South Carolina, including our governor. Actually, the S.C. Speaker seems to have more unchecked power than any politician in any state in the country. The Speaker not only controls the House (Leadership power is shared in the S.C. Senate), but also the most powerful functions of the executive branch (through board and commission appointments) and ultimately has the most say in who becomes a judge (The governor has no say in most S.C. judicial appointments, while the Speaker appoints half the panel that selects candidates on whom lawmakers vote. The other half of the panel is split between two senators).
The Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives has all that power, and yet is elected to office by less than 1 percent of registered voters and to the most powerful position in the state by 124 people.
All this in a state in which there is less transparency than any other and more opportunity to benefit personally from public office. No other state in the nation concentrates that much power in the hands of one politician. The judicial power alone makes our Speaker unique in his role over all three branches of government, and with the additional power over the executive branch our Speaker is an anomaly in this country.
A politician that powerful could easily manipulate the system to his own benefit and strong-arm others into doing so. A politician that powerful also has unparalleled resources to retaliate against those who oppose him.
The potential for abuse of power is disturbing, and that’s why the system has to change. But until it does, South Carolinians deserve to know that the Speaker of the House is always held to the highest standards possible, at least by House members who elect him. There should never be any question of violating the law – or even the appearance of it – but if there is, it shouldn’t take massive public pressure to trigger an independent investigation (as it did in the case of our current Speaker).
It is unfortunate that our Speaker has yet to offer a full, public explanation for alleged violations of multiple ethics laws. Until the public has answers, there will be mistrust all around. Until South Carolinians have the government all Americans deserve, our politicians should expect growing levels of scrutiny. Too much is at stake to let one politician operate above the law and beyond citizen reach.