June 28, 2012
“I’m shocked, shocked to find that politics is going on in this Legislature.”
Perhaps the recent article about Rep. Jim Morris’ loss of his legislative committee vice-chairmanship should have started by paraphrasing this famous line from “Casablanca.” It would have been appropriate.
For the second time recently, The Advocate has run a story which distorts the reality of the Louisiana legislative process. These sensationally written stories leave the readers with an unrealistic, middle-school civics view of Louisiana government that, frankly, just isn’t accurate.
In recent times, the Louisiana Legislature has run more like a parliamentary system. The public elects a governor, who functions in many ways like a prime minister. Instead of being independent, the Legislature and the governor function as a team, with the House speaker and the Senate president serving the combined role of presiding officer and chief whip.
They get elected by the House and Senate through the support of the governor, whose decision to endorse them is based on their willingness and ability to support the governor’s agenda. That’s the trade-off — support for the governor’s agenda in exchange for the power and prestige of the office. The speaker and the president are then charged with organizing the Legislature to deliver the votes to the governor on the administration’s key policy objectives.
Is this system somehow corrupt or immoral? Of course not.
Louisianians make their political and policy decisions when voting for governor. Their legislators are rarely elected on broad policy questions. The public expects the governor to lead on statewide issues, while their individual legislators focus on local issues, bring home local benefit and provide constituent service.
So the real story is not, as The Advocate articles imply, that Reps. James H. Morris and Harold Ritchie were somehow deprived of their rights when they were disciplined for not voting with “the party line.” They still have the right to vote as they see fit.
They do not, however, have the right to be vice-chairmen — positions of leadership on the team — if they cease to be team players.
Should a part-time Legislature be expected to be a co-equal partner in policy and governance with a full-time governor with a huge staff and the line-item veto?
Readers are simply not well-served by obscuring this question for the sake of artificial sensationalism. Why not give the public an accurate (albeit nonsensational) description of the system, and trust them to change it if it’s not what they want?