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Can South Carolina’s Legislative State Ever Be Fixed?




By Jimmy G. Wiles || A month ago Cindi Ross Scoppe, associate editor of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper, devoted her Sunday column to an expose of South Carolina’s “Legislative State.”  Every South Carolina voter should have read her column.

Unfortunately, because of U.S. Senator Jim DeMint’s surprise resignation and Governor Nikki Haley’s appointment of his successor, this important topic was overtaken by events. Then came the holidays and any discussion of South Carolina’s Legislative State (and what to do about it) disappeared from people’s radar

It shouldn’t have.

Why? Because the question of why everything seemed to go wrong in South Carolina government and politics in 2012 should be front-and-center as we launch into the next legislative year. Indeed, South Carolina’s esteemed General Assembly begins its new session in Columbia on January 8.

Now, first, before I say anything further, go and read Scoppe’s December 2 column here. Also contained is a sidebar to the piece listing what Scoppe called “four easy steps” to dismantle the Legislative State:

1. Empower governors.
2. Consolidate state agencies and boards.
3. Empower local governments.
4. Transform the Legislature.

Scoppe and the political scientists she cites are right about South Carolina’s suffering from a Legislative State. But her solution’s wrong. That’s because the Legislative State is only a symptom of the disease. To correctly prescribe for the disease, you have to dig deeper in search of the root of the problem.

Scoppe’s prescription is wrong because her diagnosis is wrong.

Who – or what – created South Carolina’s dysfunctional – not to mention embarrassing – Legislative State?

The root cause isn’t what Tea Party leaders, alienated South Carolina voters and others denounce as the venality of our current elected representatives. Let me repeat that: the problem isn’t the Legislature. It’s the South Carolina Constitution of 1895.

South Carolina’s Constitution is a monstrosity. Doubt me? Go read it.

Frequently amended, parts of it have been amputated (correctly) by the federal courts. Other parts are outright insane or violative of the Civil War Amendments to the United States Constitution, and yet far too many of our State Constitution’s 118-year old provisions remain in effect. The 1895 Constitution is an albatross around the neck of any serious attempt at reform.  It’s also what created the Legislative State.

Every one of the problems Cindi Scoppe identified in her recent column is created by the South Carolina Constitution:

  • no separation of powers, with the Legislature having direct influence on and sometimes control over the Judicial Branch and some Executive Branch functions;
  • no independent judiciary and a compromised Executive Branch; and
  • a weak Governor, who often lacks the ability to hire and fire within what should be the the Governor’s Cabinet and others parts of the Executive Branch, such as state commissions and boards.

Exacerbating the problem are all the public officials – besides the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of State – who are elected statewide. Each and every one of them (plus members of Executive Branch bodies appointed by the Legislature) can tell the Governor to go screw herself – and often do.

So, implementing Cindi Scoppe’s “four easy steps” is, um, not so easy.

To fix the problem you have to amend or replace the South Carolina Constitution. And that means either a bill through the Legislature, following by a referendum, or a State Constitutional Convention. Either action, under Article XVI of the 1895 Constitution, requires a two-thirds vote of both Houses.

How likely is that, with the current Legislature?

Right. Hence, we’re screwed – and Cindi Scoppe’s nice column is just a pipe dream. The Legislative State endures. Unless you, the People, rise up.  If not, well, shut up.

Our legislators – good men and women, most of them – are doing only what we would ourselves do if we had the power. The State Constitution of 1895 – the dead hand of the evil “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, really – gives them the power. Human nature (and Original Sin) does the rest.

Almost everything which embarrassed, enraged or alienated South Carolina voters in 2012 was both perfectly legal and business-as-usual. And the rule book on what’s legal and business-as-usual is the Constitution of 1895.

So, the reality is the Palmetto State’s government – and politics – can’t be fixed with “four easy steps.” It requires heavy lifting. For a fix to work, the cause has to be torn out by the roots.

And that means confronting the continuing legacy in the Palmetto State of what the South Carolina Encyclopedia calls “country ideology” and the remnants of Whiggism. The Whig Party died in the United States in the 1850’s. But Whiggism’s founding principle – dating back to before the American Revolution in South Carolina – was that the Legislature should be supreme over the Executive. Similarly, a founding principal of “country ideology” – which, like Whiggism, originated in Great Britain where Parliament has been supreme since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – was that the people are not to be trusted to govern themselves.

In 2013 South Carolina, both principles are still very much alive. Add to the mix the Palmetto State’s continuing legacy from Reconstruction and Jim Crow and you’ve got yourself a dog’s breakfast of a 21st century state government.

Another factor exacerbating the problem of the Legislative State is the absence of a healthy two-party system. But, on examination, this, too, traces back to the same cause.

The South Carolina Encyclopedia entry on “country ideology” states that South Carolina before the Civil War “did not develop a viable two-party system.” Over 150 years later, we still don’t have one. The identity of the party-in-power just changes from time to time.

So, this New Year, here’s the sound of one-hand-clapping for Cindi Ross Scoppe. She’s given the problem a name. But the solution to the Legislative State isn’t Scoppe’s “Four Easy Steps.” It’s something much harder: fundamental state constitutional reform.

The only question is what are the Palmetto State’s voters and political activists prepared to do about it?

James G. Wiles is a resident of Myrtle Beach, S.C. and regular contributor toThe American Thinker, a national conservative website.


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