News+Opinion » Will Moredock

THE GOOD FIGHT ‌ Statehouse Coup

Republicans show the arrogance of power

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Last November, the voters showed their disgust with Congress by throwing out the Republicans and ending their 12-year reign of arrogance and corruption.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay spoke often of a "permanent Republican majority" in the Congress and apparently believed it. His "K Street Project" -- an insidious alliance of congressional Republicans and Washington lobbyists -- was designed to cement that "permanent majority" through lobbyists' money and DeLay's ruthless tactics.

Those tactics included holding the vote open for three hours on a critical 2003 Medicare reform bill while GOP floor managers twisted enough arms to get the bill passed, changing House Ethics Committee rules to protect DeLay when he came under criminal investigation, and threatening to abolish the historic Senate filibuster in judicial confirmations.

In the November elections, voters observed these abuses of congressional power (to say nothing of the line of Republicans and lobbyists doing the "perp walk" through federal court) and decided enough is enough. That's the way a healthy democracy works.

Something interesting happened at the Statehouse in Columbia last week and it bears chilling similarity to recent GOP behavior in Washington.

For years Republican leaders have been pushing to have their General Assembly caucus meetings closed to the public, in violation of the state Freedom of Information Act. Last May, state Attorney General Henry McMaster issued an opinion that said, in effect, that the Republican Caucus is not above the law. They are public officials meeting in a public building on public business. They are bound by the FOIA, like any county council or school board or public service commission.

As McMaster wrote in that opinion, a legislative caucus is a "de facto policy-making body ... A citizen does not intelligently participate in the legislative decision-making process merely by witnessing the final tallying of an already predetermined vote."

On the day that Governor Mark Sanford used his State of the State Address to warn the General Assembly about the abuse of power, a majority of House Republicans -- led by a Lowcountry cabal -- pulled a coup that essentially sets the GOP Caucus above the law and the opinion of the Attorney General.

While the media were gathered on the second floor of the Statehouse in anticipation of the governor's address, the House Rules Committee met without public notice -- a meeting that was almost certainly illegal -- in the office of House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston).

Rules Committee Chairman Converse Chellis (R-Summerville) notified only Republicans of the meeting, where they quickly hammered out a new rule to allow the GOP Caucus to meet behind closed doors in the Statehouse. And, of course, it passed the committee on a 10-1 vote. The rule change had not been publicly introduced or circulated in advance, as such changes usually are.

The rules change was hustled to the floor of the House, where members had only minutes to look it over before voting on it. Democrats tried vainly to delay the vote to allow discussion and public input. Republican leaders would not be deterred, though 10 Republicans apparently had enough sense of shame to vote against this shabby piece of business.

And, just like that, it was done. Final vote: 59-52.

Now Republicans in the General Assembly will be able to go behind closed doors and do -- well, do just about any damned thing they want to do because there will be no press or public there to watch them.

"There is still a place in the world for political parties," said House Republican Caucus Leader Jim Merrill, of Daniel Island.

"Caucuses ought to be able to discuss strategy and how they are going to deal with the other side of the aisle as a group," Harrell said.

Others questioned the legality of the new GOP rules change, including Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, and Jay Bender, an attorney and expert on the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Both The State newspaper in Columbia and The Post and Courier editorialized against this legislative coup.

Wrote The State: "...the House added insult to this grievous injury to the people of South Carolina by effectively shutting the public out of what should have been a debate over these new rules to shut the public out of future debates."

The P&C said: "No doubt there's a place for political backroom talk -- party headquarters. Once caucuses are made part of the government process, they should obey all the rules."

Nationwide, voters rose up and punished congressional Republicans for the way they had corrupted the legislative process. But nothing like that will happen in South Carolina, because in this state the Republicans are the White People's Party and white people would rather vote for corrupt Republicans than honest Democrats. And that's the difference between a healthy democracy and South Carolina.

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