The S.C. Senate: Where Many Bills Go To Die

December 11, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Senate ChamberNerve Citizen Reporter Larry Barnett of Fort Mill shows no signs of slowing down his campaign to reform Senate rules with a new legislative session right around the corner.

“I want to encourage all the activists across the state to talk to their senators and push them to make these changes,” Barnett says, who adds that he hopes stricter rules will force lawmakers to prioritize their responsibilities. “Right now they don’t act on anything.”

The Senate is scheduled to return to the State House at noon Wednesday for an organizational session. The full Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 8.

A number of Senate rules now in place facilitate procrastination and filibuster tactics, such as, for example, placing a bill on the contested calendar and disrupting sessions repeatedly to acknowledge guests, Barnett says.

Several significant bills died in the Senate this year, including legislation aimed at strengthening the state’s open-records law and another proposal to create a Department of Administration, which would have given the governor direct control over many state administrative functions now handled by the much-criticized S.C. Budget and Control Board.

“They’ve got to get to the point where they (the Senate) can do business,” Barnett says. “They can’t get any bill of any importance passed. It’s a shameful process. There’s no excuse for it.”

Barnett provided The Nerve with a list of Senate rules that he said he would like to see amended or eliminated:

  • Rule 7B – Introduction of Visitors and Guests: This rule allows members of the General Assembly to interrupt the order of business to recognize family members, guests and the achievements of various citizens. “This is a waste of taxpayer money,” Barnett says. “If senators feel the need to do this, let them convene on Saturday or Sunday on their own time and at their own expense.”
  • Rule 15A – Bringing Debates to a Close:  After one hour of debate on any matter other than a reapportionment bill or question of the third reading of a bill or resolution, Rule 15A brings a matter to a close – based on a majority vote of the Senate – and forces the senator holding the floor on the matter to sit down so the Senate can vote on it. “To improve the efficiency of the Senate,” says Barnett, “and limit filibustering opportunities, Rule 15A should be modified to require a ‘majority of those present and voting’ to bring debate to a close.”
  • Rule 19EStanding Committees of the Senate: Chairmen are chosen based on seniority – as in the most senior member of the majority party. This can result in lesser qualified individuals being placed in the most responsible positions, Barnett contends.  “Government should be run like a business,” he asserts, “with the most knowledgeable and capable individual selected to lead.” Barnett suggests that the chairman be selected from the majority party by a majority vote of those serving on the committee. “The people on the committee need to elect their chairman,” he says.
  • Rule 22Recalling Bills from Committee:  Committees and subcommittees are where bills often die. Barnett says it is virtually impossible to get the required votes to recall stalled bills out of committee. (The rule requires a majority vote of “present and voting” senators for most bills that have been in committee for at least five days from the date of referral.) “This Senate rule should be modified to allow for the sponsor of the bill to request in writing consideration of the bill at each committee or subcommittee level until a determination is made one way or the other,” Barnett recommends. “The rule should include a reasonable time limit within which time the committee or subcommittee must respond after the request is made.”
  • Rule 24A – Clauses in Bill Must Be Germane, and Rule 24B – Vote Requirements for General Permanent Laws Included in Reports of Conference Committees on Appropriations Bills: The first part of Rule 24 prevents clauses that are not relevant to the bill from being added, but the second part, according to Barnett, directly contradicts the intent of 24A by allowing changes to permanent laws to be included in appropriations bills. “Temporary or permanent changes in laws should not be part of an appropriations bill,” says Barnett.
  • Rule 27 – Presentation of Papers: This rule, according to Barnett, enables senators to make remarks regarding memorials and resolutions at the discretion of the Senate president. “Current practice allows these things to interrupt the normal business of the Senate,” Barnett says. “While sometimes necessary and of value, a specific time should be set aside for these matters to the extent possible so as to minimize the impact on the other business of the Senate.”
  • Rule 32B – Contested Calendar: It takes only one objecting senator to place a bill on the contested calendar. Similarly, a minority report in a committee or subcommittee allows a senator from a minority party to kill a bill. “This appears to be unique to the South Carolina Senate, and has been increasingly used and abused to the extent that it is often impossible to get the simplest bills passed,” Barnett says. “The practice should be stopped.”

Barnett says he first became interested in Senate rules when he discovered that Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, could stop York County from adjusting its school calendar.

“That, added to the fact important bills consistently get stalled indefinitely in the Senate, prompted me to look into the Senate rules,” he says.

Since June, Barnett has been working closely with The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, to implement his initiative.

Barnett says he has observed that bills typically have an easier time passing the House.

“Everything gets bogged down in the Senate,” he says. “If they don’t clean these rules up, it’s going to continue to be that way.”

Although he doesn’t believe senators will implement all of his proposed changes, Barnett hopes at the very least they will take some of his recommendations into consideration.

“It just stuns me as I look at what they’re doing down there,” he says.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org