Reforming the House Rules – A History Lesson

As Ecclesiastes tells us, there is no new thing under the sun. If any verse of scripture should be motto for the newly formed House Rules study committee, it is that one.

At the beginning of their next meeting, the committee members should study a history lesson about a similar reform movement that arose in the U. S. House back in 1910.

Rep. Joseph Cannon (R-Illinois) had been Speaker for four years before members revolted over his abuse of power.  As Speaker and chair of their Rules Committee he controlled the committee assignment of each bill. As Speaker, he determined the committee assignment of each member. He used these powers to put his allies in control of all committees and determined what bills would be debated and in what form. He also used these powers to punish members of the progressive wing of his own party led by then President Theodore Roosevelt. A coalition of progressive Republicans and Democrats revolted and ultimately limited Cannon’s power as Speaker. Sound familiar?

It should because this example describes the atmosphere and practice within the South Carolina House since at least 2009 when then Rep. Nikki Haley was demoted from her committee assignment for clashing with the Speaker over House Rules reform. In her case, she called for more transparency by requiring each member’s vote to be recorded through roll call voting – a rule that was changed when she was elected Governor.

Her punishment was made possible because our Speaker holds the same power now as Joe Cannon did in 1910. Our Speaker has absolute power to assign individual members to specific committees and absolute power to assign specific bills to specific committees. In our case, he does not even use a Rules committee to determine where bills should go. This “assignment power” allows the Speaker to promote, modify  or ignore any piece of legislation.

These powers must be constrained.

In a positive move, acting Speaker Jay Lucas appeared yesterday before the newly created Rules Study Committee to recommend several changes to the House Rules.

Among his recommendations are:

Limit the number of terms a member can serve as Speaker.

Ban leadership PACs. They are used to give money to member’s campaign accounts.

Create a legislative oversight committee that would determinate the need for the existence of over 200 state agencies.

Remove the ability of the Speaker to hire every House employee and transfer this duty to the House Operations and Management Committee.

Limit the ability of a member to fast track a bill without it having gone through committee for debate.

Extend the time that an explanation for a bill is given to the House when it comes up for debate.

These are all laudable reforms to be debated. I especially applaud acting Speaker Lucas for publicly supporting term limits on his position.

Unfortunately, no mention was made of the Speaker’s absolute “assignment power.”

One way to eliminate the Speaker’s control of legislation would be to restructure our existing House Rules Committee in two ways. First, have the members of the committee elected by all members of the House with the majority party holding the majority of seats. Then give the committee the power to assign legislation to the appropriate standing committee.

Limiting the Speaker’s control over each member’s committee assignment will be more difficult. Developing a method to give all members access to service on the more powerful committees is a necessary reform.

The rules reformers back in 1910 made history. Will the South Carolina House do the same in 2014?

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