Some freshmen lawmakers are shocked — shocked — to discover South Carolina government is inefficient and a select few wield all the power in Columbia.
In other no duh news: Myrtle Beach gets congested during summer.
Of course, our new legislators are correct. The Senate president pro tem and speaker of the House both have more influence than South Carolina’s governor. In fact, a handful of lawmakers drive the entire state agenda. Didn’t they learn this in civics?
Oh, wait, we stopped teaching that.
The solution to this imbalance, these freshmen say, is to rewrite the state constitution. They’re circulating legislation to ask voters for a constitutional convention, possibly as soon as November.
Our current governing document was written in 1895 by Jim Crow — sorry, Ben Tillman — to consolidate power in the Legislature on the slim chance a black person got elected governor.
You’d think Democrats would love the chance to undo the work of Tillman, the patron saint of racism. Instead, they fear Republicans will use this as an excuse to add provisions against abortion and other social issues that would violate the U.S. Constitution.
Republicans were highly offended.
How dare they accuse state officials of injecting value politics into the hallowed governing document of South Carolina — where hunting and fishing is a constitutional right (Article I, Section 25).
Get your red pens
If lawmakers want to tweak the constitution, there’s no shortage of excuses.
Some sections are outdated, others are contradictory and a few are summarily ignored. And it discriminates against atheists, illiterates and the habitually drunk.
There’s a lawsuit — or threat to the Legislature’s quorum — lurking in there somewhere.
Here are a few problems:
• The constitution says anyone who denies the existence of the Supreme Being can’t be governor (Article IV, Section 2) or hold any state office (Article VI, Section 2). Which means a secular humanist could sue the bejesus out of us … if she could get elected.
• The constitution grants one senator to each county (Article III, Section 6). Since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1960s, however, senators have been elected by districts.
But what if Allendale County (population 9,400) sues to have the same Senate representation as Richland County (population 407,000)?
It could happen, even though that's as crazy as giving Alaska and California the same number of U.S. senators, when one is 50 times more populous.
• Why do you need to demonstrate an ability to read and write to vote (Article II, Section 6) but not to buy a gun?
• How can the Legislature create counties (Article VII, Section 1) when South Carolina is limited to 46 (Article VIII, Section 3)?
• And why is divorce legal only after “continuous separation for a period of at least one year” (Article XVII, Section 3), yet the waiting period is waived in cases of “habitual drunkenness.” Doesn’t seem fair to teetotalers.
Of course, the biggest question is this:
Why do we have a constitutional provision guaranteeing lawmakers mileage and per diem (Article III, Section 19), but not one word about how it's a bad idea to let utilities write their own legislation?
A few suggestions
There are some ways to level the playing field here.
A new constitution could require independent panels to draw legislative and congressional districts.
We could give outside agencies the ability to set ethics regulations, instead of allowing lawmakers to police themselves.
We could also consider term limits, so one man couldn’t amass enough influence to unilaterally take Charleston’s money for Interstate 526 and pave a cow pasture.
But even with all those new provisions — and a repeal of the General Assembly’s authority to run all state agencies (Article XII, Section 1) — the legislative branch would still prevail over the executive more often than not. That's just how government works.
See: Obama, President and the Republican Congress.
There are 170 members of the South Carolina General Assembly, and the freshmen are correct that a small percentage of them are driving the bus. It's not ideal.
But then, neither is the idea of 170 people — all with their own agendas — constantly in a standoff. That wouldn't be terribly efficient.
This is all academic, of course, because this proposal is going nowhere. It's hard to get a majority of lawmakers to agree what day it is. To even put a constitutional convention question on the ballot would require the support of two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.
It’s in the Constitution.