You’re about to learn how your state legislature (especially if you’re in a Red State) really works. Most state legislatures have little to do with the romanticized textbook notion of the process of making laws by your elected state Representatives and Senators. There are some elements of my story that have never seen the light of a middle school or high school textbook; and they never will. Because they’re true, but distasteful and don’t reflect the requisite imperative of always singing the song of America as the “National Anthem” stanzas of democracy.
Most textbooks and teacher Internet resources follow the same dry pattern when describing state legislatures. Students read that such assemblies are divided into 2 chambers, except for Nebraska, and are called bicameral (literally meaning 2 chambers). One of those chambers is the Senate, the other the House of Representatives. Then it’s on to explaining different leadership positions within a legislative body and the process of making laws; how bills are put together and introduced and either passed or rejected.
It’s all predictable, limited and inartful insofar as History textbooks are not comprehensive or completely honest. Let me guide you through the political thicket that is truly a typical state legislature.
In my media news life, I’ve covered a couple of state legislatures. Politically I’ve testified before a committee, been announced from the floor and actually have befriended some state senators and representatives. They’ve either told me stuff on background or have been half in the bag when they spilled the beans. My incentive for this story is to ‘vote the bums out’. We no longer have a citizen representative democracy in most states
Lets start with access. As an average Joe or Jill you can’t get through to the Governor or assorted legislative big shots. But money talks. A prime example is the February 2011 phone punking of Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker by an online newspaper editor pretending to be David Koch. When Walker thought it was one of the Billion-dollar brothers, he dove for the phone. Power, money and those who preside over large voting blocs get the attention of your elected officials.
A second money example is Howard Rich, a 72-year-old New York Real Estate Mogul who routinely pours sizable contributions fronted by his LLC Corporations into even the smallest of districts in states where legislators are voting on school choice or voucher issues. In South Carolina, Rich got his money’s worth. He contributed to 58% of the state’s House members who passed a school choice bill he supported. The bill was approved, by a 65-49 count. All 65 were Republicans. You can track more info and assorted SC Rich contributions listed in my September 12th submission. It’s the same Rich pattern in other state legislatures. Your $50 buys no access or influence. Ergo, you should know that General Assembly squatters get their marching orders from the same people who over-stuff their campaign coffers.
Do you dream of resorts and 5-star hotels? Get yourself elected to your state legislature and outfits like the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC) will pick up the tab for all manner of exotic destinations. All you have to do in turn is exactly what they tell you to do including introducing their model legislation or variations thereof. Much of the aforementioned SC school choice bill was based on ALEC model legislation. You must also follow the voting instructions offered in back room meetings with ALEC and their corporate mentors.
In addition to ALEC, your rep will have to do the bidding of the likes of the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, the Club for Growth and special interest lobbyists. If he or she doesn’t, they’ll have served their last term. Many legislators attend fancy special interest gatherings at local hotel lounges where they’re plied with liquor and, again, told what is expected of them.
While on the decline, the Tea Party still commands considerable power in most red state legislatures. Few bills of importance to the Tea Party come to a vote without numerous personal meetings between top TP operatives and the legislative power structure.
Progressives can get Red State Capital invites as well. They can even testify before committees where members sit indifferently, take no notes, nod awake, ask few questions and, in some cases, actually munch on potato chips (I’ve seen it). The big difference is, the insiders sit in the Chair’s offices out of public view and talk to the true power centers. I personally know of a Governor’s office meeting between Tea Party leaders and South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley on a health care issue. The Governor occasionally travels the state with “Open Door after 4” constituent meetings of 10 minutes duration. You think the TP “Closed Door after 4” meeting was 10 minutes?
I know a legislator who introduced a health care bill that was killed that same day. When a powerful committee Chairman was asked why there was such opposition, he told the bill’s sponsor that Blue Cross “TOLD US” to kill the bill. After some discussion, the Committee chair, allowed the bill to be re-introduced a couple of days later. A scant 2 hours after that re-introduction, the governor issued an Executive Order creating a Study Committee on the issue temporarily taking the bill off the table. It was a request for the findings of this committee that resulted in the Tea Party/Governor confab effectively killing the bill for a second time.
It’s the lucky first-termer who has any say in anything other than bridge-naming that goes on in the General Assembly. It goes something like this on the really meaningful legislation: the special interest and money boys drive the conversation and direction. A powerful governor can play a role. The word filters down through the Senate President Pro Tem, Speaker of the House and Majority Leaders who have the power of appointing various committee members. The next power centers are Chairpersons of certain standing committees such as Finance, Ways and Means, Banking and Judiciary, Health and Human Services and especially the Rules Committee. As for the newcomer backbenchers, they do as they’re told in their caucuses.
Like any band of ambitious, ego-driven individuals, there can be deep personal animosities. Back in the summer of 2010, Steve Parker, a Republican Upstate Representative, was accused by fellow Republican Upstate legislator, Joey Millwood of working against him in the previous primary. The rhetoric heated up. According to witnesses, Parker called Millwood an arrogant S.O.B. and threatened to kick his ass back at his office. Millwood was defeated in the next primary. Making for strange political bedfellows, an extremely powerful Republican legislative operative hates the governor’s guts so much he recently offered to cooperate with a Democratic rep in whatever moves might hurt the governor’s effectiveness.
Most political power in SC? My sources tell me Bobby Harrell and Glenn McConnell. Look up Bobby. Well worth the trip (or flight?).
The best chance you have to advance this country to the next step in recovery is the mid-terms in 2014. Be proud Democrats and no matter how many voting roadblocks the right-wing plants in front of you, get to the polls and “throw the bums out.”