Legislative update – Agenda-setting session

  • Saturday, August 30, 2014


The Republican majority in the South Carolina House of Representatives currently stands at 78 members, in comparison to the Democratic Party's 46 members. One can deduce from those figures that there are 124 House members and that each district represents approximately 40,000 South Carolina residents. (State senators represent approximately 100,000 people per district.)

The reason I mention this numerical breakdown is to lay the groundwork for this column regarding the annual legislative agenda, how it comes about, and to explain why agendas either succeed or fail.

The Republican Caucus spent the past weekend meeting for formal and informal sessions for the dual purpose of interacting with issue advocacy groups and determining the caucus's priorities for the next legislative session. This effort was not particular groundbreaking, but it did allow for a framework of future legislative activity to be identified.

I am constantly amazed at the general misunderstanding over how difficult it is to pass legislation. This is especially true regarding contentious or volatile issues.

Recently, when speaking to a local community group, I posed the question, “If you asked the owners of 10 homes in your neighborhood to name the absolute best restaurant in the Lowcountry, what is the chance that you could arrive at a majority consensus?” Unsurprisingly, the answer was “almost none.”

Extrapolate that difference of opinion to the 124 House members and 46 senators who represent different geographic districts, vocations, political parties, age, race, life experiences, etc., and one begins to understand how difficult it is to agree on virtually anything. Ironically, this dichotomy progresses with each successive level of government.

In other words, there is a greater likelihood of finding consensus among a neighborhood group than there is among a city council. And the city council is more likely be of similar mind than a county council, and the same is true for the state legislature, regional collaborations and then the federal government.

With each successive governing entity, the ability to establish commonality becomes increasingly more difficult and requires greater tactical and political ability to succeed.

That is also why effectiveness and productivity are so rare at the higher levels of government. Congress is far, far less effective than state governments at passing meaningful laws in a timely manner. And state governments are generally less nimble than county governments, and county less so than city, and so on.

This dynamic is the basic philosophy behind “home rule” and why many issues should be handled at the local level rather than from an increased structural, if not geographic, distance. (It is also why genuine legislative success should be celebrated rather than ignored or dismissed as is the current standard operating procedure.)

As a side bar, it is also important to note that regarding some issues, a macro view is highly beneficial – taxes being the most obvious example. Too often, local entities and/or agencies recognize only their needs and demands, while ignoring that for the tax paying public, it doesn't really matter the percentage or manner in which they are being taxed, only that the funds are still coming out of one paycheck.

Which brings this column to its salient point that there are numerous factors which contribute to the success or failure of a bill or a legislative agenda.

Over the past few weeks, I have read seemingly endless articles about how the General Assembly passed X or did not pass Y. Everything from tax reform, to ethics reform, to infrastructure improvement, to education funding, to domestic abuse, to land conservation, to job creation and a lack of gun control has been laid at the collective feet of public officials. And it is true that not every issue received the scrutiny and attention that is deserved.

But governing is an incremental process, that unfortunately, is too often driven by crisis. Yes, it is frustrating. And that is why it is so important to step back on a regular basis and evaluate where things are and where we want things to be.

At this moment in time, it seems to me that government is largely overreaching its role and there is a concerted effort to become all things for all people. This is not achievable and is certainly not sustainable.

Sadly, general principles like individual freedom, personal responsibility and market place supply and demand are taking a back seat to government expansion. I recently saw a report that indicated that better than 50 percent of our population receives some form of government assistance. In the statistical world, that is commonly referred to as a tipping point.

It is why the legislative agenda, and the priorities that are set for the body as a whole, is so important.

Over the next few weeks the members of the General Assembly will begin evaluating the issues that confront us all and then working for their placement within the agenda hierarchy. During this time, it is important for all of us to articulate the need for prioritizing, while emphasizing the proper role that government should play in our lives.

If we can embrace a healthy skepticism of government growth, while also researching our choices at the ballot box in November, it may lend itself to a more effective government that reaches agreement on actual meaningful topics that are of importance to you and your family. Not the special interest groups – you. And with a little bit of good fortune and vigilance, those issues might even be addressed in a timely manner.

Rep Jim Merrill is the former majority leader of the South Carolina House of Representatives and represents South Carolina's District 99.

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