MY LAST NERVE: You Don’t Need Term Limits; You Need Backbone

September 26, 2014

Inside Insight

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sc state house 2HOUSE MEMBERS ALREADY HAVE THE POWER TO LIMIT THE SPEAKER’S TERMS . . . ALL THEY HAVE TO DO IS USE IT

After more than a year-long investigation, several circuit court hearings, and a Supreme Court ruling, then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell was indicted by a Richland County grand jury earlier this month. He was then suspended by the presiding officer and acing speaker Rep. Jay Lucas (R- Darlington).

What happened afterward was both refreshing and maddening. Members of the House, who’s somehow remained quiet on the issue for years, came out publicly criticizing the power vested in the speaker’s office. While it’s a huge relief to hear members speaking openly about the concentration of power, the fact that it took a criminal indictment to make that happen makes you wonder how 124 allegedly independent-minded elected officials kept absolutely quiet about it for so long.

In an effort to ensure that House members are never again oppressed (and suppressed) by their speaker, representatives are considering implementing term limits on future speakers. As in popular elections, though, House members have the power to limit terms. Should they begin to see that the representative they previously elected to lead the body has lost his way as a leader – or become power-hungry tyrant – or even just a political liability – they can elect another speaker.

Or at least not reelect the current speaker by voice vote, which House members did in 2006, 2008, and 2012. (In 2010 Harrell had an opponent, Rep. Ralph Norman, and he received five votes.)

Granted: the speaker – whoever he happens to be – controls committee assignments for all members (with the exception of two committees), and the desire for a good committee assignment and the ability to get things “accomplished” can outweigh a member’s duty to elect a better speaker. What the vote for speaker should truly be based on, however, is the candidate’s ability to lead, and on his integrity and honesty – not whether he is fair with committee assignments. If you don’t like the speaker, don’t vote for him next time. If others who share your opinion can’t produce an opponent, what does that say about the House?

While it may be tempting to do this in order to breathe new life into this leadership position, term limits won’t address the central problem – the concentration of power among a few individuals. The majority of the power the speaker wields is through statewide appointments to executive branch boards and commissions. That power over the function of state government will not be tamped down because a House rule says the speaker can only serve two terms (or whatever term the House comes up with should they choose to implement a term limit). Absent the elimination of statewide power the speaker wields, term limits on this position will simply give more members their turn to take advantage of concentrated power.

There’s an alternative to term limits. It’ll be harder to implement, but the reform will benefit South Carolina far more than merely increasing turnover in the speaker’s office. If the Legislature were to take the power to run state government away from the speaker – in other words, if the speaker becomes simply the House’s presiding officer, not a puppet master behind all three branches of government – members won’t want to serve more than two or three terms.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.