The SC House Marshmallow Test

An edited version of this article appeared in The State newspaper on 19 September 2014.

Back in the 1960’s, Stanford University studied instant gratification impulses in children. Researchers would measure impulses by offering the child a choice. He could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later if he could just wait 15 minutes. Subsequent research revealed that those children who delayed gratification attained a higher quality of life as adults.

For a different version of the Stanford marshmallow test, consider the unfolding race for Speaker of the House. Within hours of Rep. Bobby Harrell’s indictment, four candidates were running for the position. By the next day, one candidate claimed that he had 70 commitments out of the 124 members – a number disputed by two of the candidates. The fourth candidate had already pledged his supporters to the front-runner. Marshmallows were there to be eaten.

Rep. Harrell’s indictment and suspension as Speaker is an acutely embarrassing and unique event in our history. It should make House members pause to consider reforms that would check the absolute power that led to his leadership failure.

The Speaker’s powers are vast, exceeding that of the Governor. Beyond the power he wields in the House – granted to him by the House Rules – he influences state agencies through the appointments he makes to numerous boards, commissions and committees.

Legislation to reduce the Speaker’s appointment power will require a long bloody fight through the House and Senate. Before that process can begin, the reform of House Rules must take place. These reforms are particular to the House itself. They require no affirmation from the Senate or Governor.

The House Rules concentrates power to the Speaker through his assignment authority. He has absolute authority to assign both bills and members to specific committees. This authority grants him influence over all committee chairman who determine whether bills are debated or buried.

By granting the Speaker control over the House’s intellectual capital, the rules discourage innovation, marginalize the majority of members and blunt election results as new members arrive with populist-driven ideas that are never debated. Instead of ensuring equal representation in the “People’s House,” the rules create an oligarchy.

Having so few members in positions of power explains why widely recognized problems such as road disrepair, outdated tax rules, regulatory overreach and poorly performing state agencies are never solved. Those in power are more interested in keeping power than providing solutions. For the sake of our future, the rules must change.

At a minimum, the rules should limit the number of terms a member can serve as Speaker or as a committee chairman, eliminate leadership PACs and expand the number of standing committees so that the State may benefit from the talents of the broadest number of Representatives as possible.

To their credit, the three candidates pledged to support rules reform. Two issued statements confirming their commitment. The acting Speaker, using his temporary power, even appointed a rules study committee.

Before we declare victory, we should remember that study committees are not House standing committees. They have no authority to introduce legislation. Often, study committees are mere political sounding boards, designed to project the illusion of leadership.

I sincerely hope that the rules study committee serves a more noble purpose. The members will decide that as they debate a broad range of contentious reforms including ways to limit the power of the leader who appointed them – all between now and the House organizational meeting late this year.

During that meeting, the entire House membership will have just three days to consider the committee’s recommendations and adopt the rules for the next two years. With so little time, the House may allow this historic moment to slip by. This must not happen.

During a conversation with one candidate about my lack of commitment in the Speaker’s race, I was asked what I wanted. This question could be taken several ways. I replied that I wanted the rules reformed and nothing else. Since I refused the first marshmallow, I have decided that my constituents deserve more.

We want a candidate with a vision of South Carolina that goes beyond politics as usual. We want a candidate who clearly offers a platform of ideas to solve our problems before appointing a study committee. We want a candidate who leads from the front. A good start would be a public promise to limit his term as Speaker to a time certain regardless of rules reform. Until we see evidence of these leadership qualities, we – as in the 38,000 South Carolinians I represent – remain uncommitted.

Bringing Down The House Feudal System

The current leadership crises in the South Carolina House of Representatives, while acutely embarrassing, grants us a rare opportunity to reform the House structure and spread power to a broader number of legislators. Or more succinctly, allows us to bring the House out of the Dark Ages and into the 21st Century.

This assertion may come as a surprise as most voters assume that every Representative has equal power. While each of the 124 members of the House has one vote, their power to influence legislation derives from their committee assignment and ultimately, the homage they pay to the Speaker.

Let me explain how our House feudal system works.

Our state constitution merely creates the framework for the South Carolina House of Representatives. The House Rules establish the procedure for the election of the Speaker, defines his duties, defines House committees and the election of their chairmen. When a member runs for Speaker of the House, he must be elected by a majority of all House members regardless of party affiliation.

Once elected, the Speaker decides the committee assignment of each member. The committee members vote for their chairman. The new committee chairman then chooses his sub-committee chairmen – a nice little system of quid pro quo.

The House Rules define six standing committees that handle the vast majority of legislation. Members may serve on only one of these standing committees.

Each committee chairman determines the legislation to be debated in his committee. Of the six standing committees, the Ways and Means Committee garners the most power by controlling both budget and revenue legislation. A more appropriate name could be the Who Gets What and Who Gets Taxed Committee. It has 25 members – just 20% of the total House membership.

These combined rules give the Speaker incredible power to decide committee composition, influence the selection of committee chairmen, determine the flow of legislation and most harmful, create a system of fealty that diverts the loyalty of members away from their constituents and to the Speaker. It also concentrates spending power to the members of Ways and Means Committee with each subcommittee becoming a spending fiefdom.

Currently, there are no limitations for how long a member may be Speaker or committee chairman.

This concentration of power into the hands of a few wastes the talents of many existing House members, blunts the reforms promoted by new generations of members and ultimately disenfranchises those voters who elected them.

Our outdated system explains why important legislation such as road funding reform, tax reform, ethics reform, government restructuring and a host of other problems are never solved. Those in power are more interested in keeping power than solving problems. For the sake of our future, this must change.

As each candidate for Speaker calls me, and as of this morning I have talked to three, I am bluntly advising them that my vote goes to the one who can best reform these outdated rules.


To Everything There is a Season – A Time for New Leadership and Reform

A Richland County Grand Jury handed down 9 indictments this afternoon against SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston). Included in the indictments were charges for Misconduct in Office, Using Campaign Funds for Personal Use, and False Reporting of Candidate Campaign Disclosures.

As an American, I believe that people are innocent until proven guilty. I will allow a jury to determine Rep. Harrell’s guilt or lack thereof.

However, as a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, I cannot support any member in a leadership position who has been indicted. The people in my district deserve better.

Our state has many opportunities to win and many problems to solve. We need a Speaker who will focus on our bright future, not on defending his own past questionable actions. For the good of South Carolina, Rep. Harrell should step down as Speaker forthwith. Whether he should resign from the House is a matter between him and his constituents in Charleston.

The organizational structure of the South Carolina House cries out for comprehensive reform. We have a structure that concentrates power in the hands of a very few Representatives while the talents of other members are never used. This structure does not give all South Carolinians true representation in the “Peoples” House, but rather creates an oligarchy of tyranny.

At a minimum, the new Speaker should lead the reformation of House Rules to limit the number of terms a member can serve as Speaker, to limit the number of terms a member may serve as a committee chairman, and to expand the number of standing committees so that the State may benefit from the talents of the broadest number of Representatives as possible.

I will not vote for any member running for Speaker who does not, at a minimum, strongly support and act to achieve these reforms. 





Vetoing Tax Hungry Fire Stations and Power Hungry Librarians

Earlier today, the SC House was gaveled into a two-hour special Session to consider two vetoes issued by Gov. Haley.

The first bill, S293, would allow a local fire district in Murrells Inlet to raise property taxes to fund a new fire station.

The Governor vetoed the bill insisting that these types of local tax increases should be decided by local council or referendum; not by the General Assembly.  I voted to sustain the veto and against direct General Assembly involvement in a local property tax issue. The House agreed voting 58-49 to sustain the veto.

The second bill, S813, would allow public librarians to expel misbehaving patrons and expand their ability to file criminal charges against these miscreant bibliophiles.

The Governor, knowing that absolute power corrupts absolutely, vetoed the bill fearing that librarians would indiscriminately banish certain citizens from the library or issue draconian edicts demanding total silence from those worthy enough to be granted access to their sanctum. I voted to sustain the veto and against depriving citizens of their right to access tax-funded knowledge. The House disagreed voting 75-36 to override the veto. Library loiterers and skulkers beware.

Some may question the necessity of bringing back the legislature to debate two minor issues.  I have no answer other than one a librarian can appreciate (and with apologies to Tennyson): it is not mine to make reply, nor to reason why, but to merely do or die.

We are now adjourned until after the November elections granting the citizenry a three-month respite from legislative action.

The Pay Raise Veto

I was really surprised that the SC House actually over-rode Gov. Haley’s veto of the $12,000/year legislative pay raise. Note that it took two votes to do it. We sustained the veto on the first vote, then a few members changed their minds and it was re-voted.

The 54% increase in legislative compensation has two effects.

First, it gives legislators an additional $1,000 per month to cover in-district expenses. This money is reportable as taxable income.

Second, it is included in the formula that determines legislators future retirement benefits. The formula is based on years of service and compensation.

So, the more seniority a legislator has the greater the increase in his retirement benefit.

Think about it. This pay raise really sweetens the ability to get re-elected. It keeps on paying all through retirement.

The SC Senate will take up the veto today. They should sustain it, but since it was their idea in the first place, I doubt that they will.

Note that the Senate did sustain the veto and the pay raise was defeated.

Tommy Stringer