It’s hard to find anyone you’ve ever heard of who admits to opposing the proposal to let gubernatorial candidates pick their running mates.
Little wonder. The only legitimate argument for electing the lieutenant governor independently of the governor is that changing it would deprive voters of a choice. And with nine separately elected statewide offices, on top of federal, legislative and local elections, that’s a tough argument to make, particularly considering all the benefits of the change.
What you may hear, though, is that the constitutional amendment on Tuesday’s ballot is a nefarious Senate power grab, dressed up to look like the sort of reform we need to make governors a little more effective and lieutenant governors a little less useless. The only way that we the people can retain control of our government, this conspiracy theory goes, is to reject the amendment. It’s charitable to call that a red herring. What critics are pouncing on is the provision that eliminates the lieutenant governor’s role as presiding officer of the Senate and allows the Senate instead to pick its own presiding officer from among its membership, just like the House does.
I am convinced that getting the lieutenant governor out of the Senate chamber strikes a blow for the separation-of-powers doctrine. Consider how ridiculous it would be for a senator to serve as chief justice, or for a judge to be the governor’s chief of staff, and you begin to realize how bizarre it is to have a member of the executive branch preside over the Senate.
But even if you think this branch blending makes sense, the fact is that in practical terms, who presides over the Senate is much ado about practically nothing.
Yes, the presiding officer breaks ties – which occur about once a year. I’m sure there has been some occasion when some lieutenant governor has cast a tie-breaking vote that was truly significant. At some point in our history. But I can’t recall one.
There was that time, 13 years ago, when the Senate split 22-22 on a motion to force a vote on a bill to outlaw video poker; Bob Peeler voted with gambling opponents to end the filibuster. Of course, it took 29 votes to end the filibuster, so that was an absurd exercise in futility.
And then there was a time 20 years ago when Nick Theodore cast a tie-breaking vote, to ban the newly legalized gambling machines. A few minutes later, a senator switched his vote, negating the effect of the lieutenant governor’s vote and keeping video gambling legal for another decade.
Without a lieutenant governor, ties would be handled the same conservative way they are in the House: Failure to get a majority preserves the status quo; that is, the motion fails.
Yes, the presiding officer makes procedural rulings, which are extremely important and nearly always so clear-cut that even the most audacious presiding officer wouldn’t dare rule any other way. Who makes the calls can make a difference if the presiding officer ignores the rules and calls questions to suit his political agenda that is, if he’s dishonest. And if that happens, the Senate can override his decision by a simple majority vote.
Yes, the presiding officer decides which committee to send bills to and if he doesn’t send them where senators want, they overrule him on that too.
Yes, the presiding officer decides which senators to recognize to speak which can be important. But to the degree that the order isn’t obvious, he tends to defer to the wishes of Senate leaders.
And a senator already does all of those things whenever the lieutenant governor doesn’t show up for work, which, depending on who the lieutenant governor is and where we are in the election cycle, can occur frequently.
The last time a lieutenant governor did anything that really mattered was ... well, actually that was this year but not in the way anyone intended. The one we elected two years ago got himself indicted, forcing Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell to give up his position as arguably the most powerful person in state government in order to descend to the powerless post, as the constitution currently requires. Which is yet another reason to change the constitution:
Rather than disrupting the Senate, the amendment also would let the governor pick a replacement if the lieutenant governor becomes indisposed.
Far from a power grab, this amendment represents one of the too-few examples of our Senate actually embracing the structural reforms that could give us a government that works for us instead of against us, using our resources a little more wisely and giving governors a few more tools to enact the agenda that the voters elected them to pursue.
It’s a smart change that we all ought to support.
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State newspaper in Columbia.
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