Wait, So Senate Rules Trump Everything?

January 23, 2015

Inside Insight

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By JAMIE MURGUIA

sc senate seats

NOT BUYIN’ IT

Stop me if you’ve heard this excuse before.

At a recent meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Larry Martin (R-Pickens) attributed his catchall approach to ethics reform to the unique nature of Senate’s rules and procedures. When Sen. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg) voiced concerns about certain provisions in the bill, and a desire to take a similar approach to that of the House – whose leadership has vowed to do away with omnibus reform bills – Martin gave a curious answer. Senate rules, he said, mean that the Senate can’t take the approach ethics reform with a series of smaller bills, as the House is doing. Senators, he said, will have to “fight this battle all at once or [they’ll] never get anything done this session.”

Sound familiar?

In 2008, the section of the state constitutIon permitting each chamber to establish its own rules of procedure (Article III, Section 12) was used to fight a statutory requirement for lawmakers to record their votes. At that point, lawmakers believed – or said they believed – they could only require mandatory roll-call voting by rule and that anything else was unconstitutional. They lost that battle. They passed a law requiring it, the governor signed it, and now they abide by it.

More recently, some senators have insisted that the chamber simply “can’t” get rid of legislative self-policing – i.e. lawmakers adjudicating each other’s ethics violations – because the constitution won’t allow it. The details differ, but it’s the same basic argument: Senate rules trump state law.

In this instance, however, perhaps Sen. Martin was referring to Senate rule 32B, which permits every senator to contest up to three bills at any given time – effectively preventing those bills from coming up for a vote. Or, perhaps he was just referring to the practice of senators voting to adjourn session for the day in order to avoid a key vote on a bill. The specific rules aren’t as important as the fact that some of our senators are content to hide behind their rules in order to avoid going on the record on every issue that matters to their constituents. The ethics reform bill that was debated at length Tuesday is not what its supporters say it is, and is even less so now after questionable amendments were adopted in the committee process.

Here’s the point: Some senators just don’t want to have to vote on each reform separately. They want to avoid an up or down vote on full private income disclosure. They have no interest in an up or down vote on eliminating their ability to police and enforce their own ethical behavior. Voting up or down on issues like these is dangerous.

These omnibus bills allow them to avoid that danger. And best of all, they allow lawmakers to boast about all the ethics-related issues they’ve advocated.

Citizens shouldn’t have to play by the Senate’s rules – rules that only the 46 members of the Senate control. For that matter, we shouldn’t have to play guessing games on whether our representatives are being honest. While the House does appear to be taking a different approach publicly, we hear House leaders may be willing to pass an omnibus bill after all. At least, Sen. Martin suggested as much during Tuesday’s meeting. Only time will tell, but it’s important to watch the evolution of this ethics debate closely. The House may be willing to tack their individual bills into S.1, but that doesn’t mean the Senate will agree to it.

Citizens need to be wary of the rush to pass another omnibus ethics bill. Just last year the legislature passed, and the governor signed, a massive “restructuring” bill that maintained the status quo with some creative name changes. Never ones to miss an opportunity to take a little extra power for themselves, lawmakers snuck through a provision allowing them to hold citizens believed to be “willfully” lying to a legislative investigative committee in “contempt of the General Assembly.” Being guilty of that grave offense could earn you a felony, five years in state prison, and/or a fine “within the discretion of the court.” This little known provision was the basis for an all-out assault on our constitutional rights last October.

So yes, by all means: let’s pass ethics reform. But can we stop the shell games?