MY LAST NERVE: How Much Power Does the Speaker Have?

April 25, 2014

Inside Insight

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Bobby HarrellMORE THAN YOU REALIZE

In less than a week, a circuit court judge may decide whether the most powerful politician in South Carolina – and maybe the most powerful legislator in the nation – will be allowed to circumvent South Carolina’s criminal justice system, or be held accountable the way any other citizen would.

The Nerve has detailed the case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) and the curious proceedings that have occurred following the announcement that the case was sent to the grand jury. But citizens are asking: How is this even a question? How is it, in other words, when there’s so much seeming evidence of wrongdoing, that the Speaker may avoid a serious investigation altogether. The answer is one word: Power.

Power over the Legislative Branch

House rules provide that the Speaker is responsible for all appointments to the House’s standing committees (with the exception of the ethics committee). Committee members elect a chairman from among the Speaker’s appointments to the committee, giving the Speaker indirect authority over committee chairs. That’s why, as the Nerve reported recently, House lawmakers are already committing to reinstall Harrell as Speaker later this year – despite a pending grand jury investigation. One House member, asked why he was prepared to vote for the Speaker, admitted it was because the Speaker  has been “very, very fair with assignments to committees.”

Additionally, the Speaker, as presiding officer of the House, has ultimate authority over all employees of the House, including the clerk’s office and committee staff. As one representative put it, nicely summarizing the Speaker’s power over the chamber, “When the king has a guillotine to your neck, it’s kind of hard to go against the king.”

Legislative leaders, including the Speaker, Ways and Means Chairman, Senate Finance Chairman, and Senate President Pro Tempore, have more than 150 appointments to various state boards and commissions including those in the executive branch. The Speaker; by contrast, controls more than 70 such appointments, making him far and away the most powerful lawmaker in the legislature.

Power over the Executive Branch

The Speaker’s 70 appointments aren’t to low-level boards and commissions, either. They’re to the most powerful governmental bodies in the executive branch. They include the Education Oversight Committee, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), and the Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC).

The STIB – consisting of a seven-member board of directors, two of which are appointed by the House Speaker – selects and finances major transportation projects by providing loans to government units and private entities. Last year, the STIB received a $50 million (to be bonded for $500 million) cash infusion by the legislature (and approved by the governor) for transportation projects. Since 1997, Charleston County has received more than $1 billion from the STIB.

The JMSC is a ten-member commission that nominates higher-level trial and appellate judges. Those candidates are elected by the General Assembly. Five of the appointments to the JMSC are made by the Speaker, and one of those appointments happens to be the Speaker’s brother.

The PURC is a ten-member board that nominates candidates to serve on the Public Service Commission (PSC). The PSC determines the electricity rates that private utilities in South Carolina can charge and also regulates other utility rates; PURC reviews the performance of the PSC. Four of the members are appointed directly by the House Speaker.

Further, through his ability to appoint members to standing House committees – and indirect authority over who chairs those committees – the Speaker has substantial influence over who sits on the Budget and Control Board, and who runs the financially flush South Carolina Research Authority, a nebulous state-owned “company” that channels massive amounts of public money to favored businesses.

The Speaker, then, exercises control over everything from education to transportation to the judicial system to the state’s energy market to the economy.

Power over the Judicial Branch

South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where legislatures play primary roles in electing state judges.

In South Carolina, the JMSC shifts power from the legislative body as a whole to legislative leaders, particularly the Speaker, who selects half the JMSC’s members. Hence the Speaker’s power exceeds the judicial power of other legislative leaders in South Carolina and Virginia. Moreover, the South Carolina House, unlike the Senate or either chamber of Virginia’s legislature, could potentially appoint judicial candidates without the aid of any votes from the Senate: the state’s judges are elected by a joint vote of the General Assembly. Since membership in the House is more than double that of the Senate, the House could select judges without a single vote in the Senate. Even in Virginia, a candidate could only win election if he or she receives a majority of votes in each chamber.

Further, the state’s judges face reelection sooner than their colleagues in Virginia, so South Carolina judges are even more beholden to legislative power than their Virginia counterparts. With respect to the judicial branch, the House’s voting power in selecting judges, the terms of judges, and the Speaker’s influence over fellow House members make the Speaker of the House the most powerful legislator in the country.

You begin to see just how powerful the Speaker of the House in South Carolina is. And that’s true of any South Carolina Speaker, not just the current one (though it’s fair to say the current one, by comparison with his predecessors, has wielded his authority with a baseball bat).

Can this increasingly centralized power structure be reformed? One hopes so, but if it turns out that the state’s most powerful politician can manipulate the criminal justice system and exempt himself from investigation, don’t bank on it.