Members of the South Carolina House of Representatives have decided to weaken the powers of their Speaker as they also move to create a new committee that will oversee and monitor dozens of state agencies.
The rules changes were unanimously approved in an organizational session Tuesday. Because they only affect the House, no further action is necessary from the state Senate or governor.
Newly elected House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, created a special ad hoc committee in September to revamp the chamber’s rules. Lucas said he wanted to reduce the Speaker’s influence after his predecessor Bobby Harrell was frequently accused of abusing his position for personal benefit.
The committee’s chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said they followed Lucas’ will on reforming the House in two ways. “One was decentralization of power and number two was to create more inclusiveness in the process,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “So that’s what we were concentrating on.”
The changes approved by the House on Tuesday included placing a 10-year term limit on the Speaker’s position, as well as reducing the Speaker’s ability to keep proposed legislation on the floor without going through the usual committee process. It also ends the practice of having the Speaker being solely responsible for the hiring and firing of all committee staffers and any pay raises they receive.
But the most significant rules change may have been the creation of a new Committee on Legislative Oversight required under a 2014 government restructuring law. Under that law, members of the House and Senate now have the power to actively oversee and examine the activities of South Carolina’s assorted executive and Cabinet agencies.
The House decided on a single committee to handle all oversight, rather than placing the responsibility on its existing panels. “For the first time in our history, this Committee will allow the House to inject true accountability into state agencies and become proactive in spotting potential problems before they arise to crisis levels,” Lucas said. “This oversight process is something I am personally committed to, and I will appoint the true bloodhounds of this body to help us provide this critical legislative function.”
Smith said a single committee made the most sense from a logistics perspective. He gave the example of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, a massive state agency that could fall under several different committees at the same time. “Let’s just create a committee that combines all of those talents in one place,” he said. “This will be a more inclusive process to give more people the opportunity to serve.”
Not all legislators supported the idea of an entirely new committee. State Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Little Mountain, said he would prefer existing committees focus on their area of expertise. He worried a single committee overseeing dozens of agencies at once would end up as “a committee structure made up of nothing but eunuchs… their oversight role will be zero.”
For the first time, the rules will also now require each committee to post minutes from their meetings online, along with any significant votes that occurred. The House also voted to create a new single committee to handle proposed regulations before they reach the House floor.
It will also require any bill sponsor or their designee to answer at least ten minutes of questions from other House members once their legislation does reach the floor. In the past, the bill’s supporters have had the option of not taking any questions once they explain what the proposed legislation does. The requirement would not apply if there are no questions from other legislators.
The House also voted to ban its members from operating non-candidate committees, better known as “leadership PACs.” In previous years, members could raise money through their PACs that could contribute to other campaigns besides their own. However, watchdog groups have criticized the process, saying it gives more powerful members a tool to buy favor among their financially-strapped peers.
The nature of the rulemaking process means the House could conceivably change back to its old rules at a later date. But Smith was confident that would not occur. “This was the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve ever had a reformation of rules,” he said. “We’ve maybe modified every once in a while. But I think there generally will not be any weakening of these rules.”