THE CONSTITUTION? MEH.
Despite flaws in the state Constitution, some provisions are both right and crystal clear. It explicitly forbids dual office holding, for example, except in a few instances such as military service or a fire department. Elected officials should only be allowed to perform one duty on behalf of the public. Holding two offices at the same time means you perform the duties of neither very well, and it opens the door to egregious conflicts of interest.
The Constitution says that “no person is eligible to a seat in the General Assembly while he holds any office or position of profit or trust under this State, the United States of America, or any of them, or under any other power, except officers in the militia, members of lawfully and regularly organized fire departments, constables, and notaries public. If any member accepts or exercises any of the disqualifying offices or positions he shall vacate his seat.”
In practice, legislators serve on multiple boards that have executive branch authority.
The Senate Finance chairman controls the Senate budget and serves on the Budget and Control Board and the State Transportation and Infrastructure Bank. It’s bad enough to diffuse accountability in the executive branch with the Budget and Control Board; it’s even worse to allow legislators to serve on the board that manages state government. One House member is paid by the federal government as a part-time staffer for a U.S. Congressman. Another is director of communications for the Commission on Higher Education. Still another is director of economic development for a community college. And in a recent controversial case, a state senator was given the full-time job of director of the Charleston Airport. The Airport is controlled by a board appointed largely by the Charleston legislative delegation (until recently, one legislator even chaired the board).
In 2011, the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers, despite a clear ban on dual office-holding, can sit on powerful boards while holding office as lawmakers. That ruling isn’t a shock – rarely has the Court actually challenged legislative hegemony.
Still, it’s baffling. The Constitution is absolutely clear.
It makes perfect sense to prohibit legislators – who have far too much power as it is – from serving in other government roles, paid or not. How can legislators objectively serve constituents in the lawmaking role for which they were elected if they have other competing public service interests, and especially if those other positions pay large salaries?
That’s the type of conflict the dual office-holding prohibition was intended to prevent. It was to ensure that lawmakers are serving only to protect the liberty and rights of their constituents. Yet legislators have managed to get around the law with the help of both the Courts and other authorities who could/should be crying foul.
The obvious question is why legislators would want to serve in other capacities. The uncomfortably obvious answer is that it must be for personal benefit – and in some cases, profit.
The ignoring of the dual office-holding prohibition reminds us of the need to separate powers. Without separation of powers, you don’t have a republic – which is why we no longer have one in South Carolina. The courts and other officials should stand up to legislative leaders who want to claim more territory for themselves. And the public should insist that they do so. Perhaps the state Constitution does need an overhaul, but it should be vigorously defended and consistently obeyed by those who take an oath to do so – especially in those areas in which it’s right.