Does S.C. House Speaker Hold Too Much Power?
Inherent in the state's constitution is considerable influence to the Speaker of the House.
It has been said, more than once, that politics in South Carolina are like politics nowhere else.
It is true that every state has its share of crackpots and cringe-worthy moments.
But in South Carolina, both in the way government is structured and the way it functions, there exists a system that seems destined to have controversy embedded into it.
As proof, cooked into the state's constitution lies the intent that the most powerful office in government belongs to someone who works part time and gets paid slightly more than $10,000 per year.
That office is the Speaker of the House.
South Carolina is just one of 40 states with a part-time legislature, so in that sense it is not unique. It would stand to reason that states with a part-time legislature have a strong executive. But that is not necessarily the case, as the Palmetto State demonstrates.
The amount of power the Speaker’s office holds has become an issue in recent weeks, after its current occupant, Bobby Harrell, became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed he had reimbursed himself more than $300,000 in legislative-related expenses.
A ballot measure in next month's election could strengthen the state's Executive Branch by linking the governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket. It remains to be seen what impact that could have on the Speaker post.
The Office or the Officeholder?
It’s hard to judge how much of the power of the Speaker’s office comes with the office itself versus how much is cultivated by the person holding the office. But the power most certainly exists.
Proof of that power is that during the course of reporting this story, only one elected official from either party — Gov. Nikki Haley — was willing to speak on the record, about Harrell, a Republican from the Charleston area.
By way of explanation for the reluctance to speak publicly, one Democrat said, “We have to work with (Bobby) and he has shown a willingness to work with us.”
After every election the Speaker must select new committees and consider officers for the House. He is not bound to make those selections in proportion with party status.
So, if 60 percent of the House is made up of Republicans, the Speaker does not have to make sure committees reflect that ratio. If the Speaker so desires, a committee can be comprised entirely of members of the same party. The Speaker does not appoint the committee chairs.
When it comes to passing legislation, it is up to the Speaker to assign bills to committee for further consideration. Should a bill make it out of committee, the Speaker sends it back to the full House for a vote.
Unlike the Senate, tenure has no bearing on committee membership.
So, if there is a House member who wants to, for example, upgrade roads in his district, he must make it a priority to get placed on a committee that can bring about such a bill. For the committee placement to occur and for the bill to even be discussed, the House member must go through the Speaker.
In short, every committee that is assembled and every bill that the House votes on are done so at the pleasure of the Speaker.
Professor Mark Tompkins, who teaches political science at the University of South Carolina, explained that even in the best of circumstances the Speaker’s job is not an easy one.
“The Speaker has an awful lot of responsibilities,” Tompkins said. “A leadership position in a part-time body as big as the House requires an incredible amount of extra work.”
Tompkins believes that Harrell in particular has a tough job.
“He doesn’t have to just lead Republicans and Democrats, who are much less united than they used to be,” Tompkins said. “But within the GOP itself there are different factions.”
And that’s just within the House. Tompkins noted that since the Mark Sanford era, the relationship between the House and the Governor’s has been frigid at best. “It’s never been an easy job,” Tompkins said.
Still, people who have worked with Harrell and his predecessor, David Wilkins, said that Harrell does not wilt from the burdens of the office and is not afraid to flex the muscle that comes with it. One way he does so is through the pro-business PAC with which he’s affiliated, the Palmetto Leadership Council (PLC). The PLC has given nearly a million dollars to hundreds of candidates over the last nine years (see who received how much and when HERE).
Change Would Not Come Easy
In speaking with Patch earlier this month on this issue, Gov. Haley would not go as far as saying that the Speaker’s office needed to be weakened.
“I think it’s something that needs to be looked at, but I’m more interested in having an Executive Branch where everyone is on the same page.”
Changing the amount of power accorded the speakership would require lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment, a move that seems unlikely if only because of the House’s willingness to pass legislation that would lessen its own influence.
Another and more immediate way to blunt the influence of the Speaker could happen in the voting booth.
South Carolinians will vote on a ballot measure next month that would link the governor and the lieutenant governor, requiring them to run on the same ticket. It's a measure that Haley has endorsed.
Should the initiative pass, it could be the first step in strengthening the Executive branch of government, and might ultimately allow the governor, not voters, to choose the state’s constitutional officers. It would not necessarily weaken the Speaker’s office, but it could have the effect of leveling the playing field.
And if the ballot measure doesn’t pass? The status quo remains.