Wednesday, November 28, 2012
For nearly a decade in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the state speaker of the House determined what bills passed and which ones didn't. He ran the House with an iron hand until 1987 when members revolted against his dictatorial style and actions. As a result, the House rules were changed to provide for a more open, democratic legislative process. Under newly elected Republican Speaker Philip Gunn, it appears we are returning to the good old days.
In a recent power play, Speaker Gunn removed Rep. Linda Whittington of Leflore County from the House Education Committee. Whittington, an expert on early childhood education, had served on that committee since she was elected in 2007.
Speaker Gunn's reasoning was that he would, in effect, give Whittington a "promotion" to vice chairman of the Tourism Committee, replacing the recently retired Tommy Woods of Marshall County. It was not necessary to remove Whittington from the Education Committee to add her to the Tourism Committee; she currently serves on six committees. A number of the speaker's allies serve on seven or more. In fact, Rita Martinson, R-Madison, the chairwoman of Tourism, Whittington's new committee, serves on nine committees.
It is apparent that the speaker made the change because of his position on charter schools. During the last legislative session, a single vote defeated charter-school legislation in the Education Committee. Whittington had a number of objections to the language in the bill and voted "No." Rep. Charles Busby, named as Whittington's replacement, was a sponsor of the bill and, obviously, a supporter.
By removing Whittington from the committee, Gunn is stacking the deck to assure passage of a charter-school bill of his choosing, one of his stated objectives for this upcoming legislative session.
Regardless of their position on any particular piece of legislation, speakers of the House have historically allowed the legislative process to work. Negotiations occur on virtually all bills before they are passed and become law. More often than not, such negotiations result in a better bill because they incorporate various perspectives. It is from this legislative crucible that lawmakers produce their best legislative work.
There is no apparent historical precedence for the speaker's recent action. It is true that former speakers have made committee re-assignments, but generally after consultation with the members involved and not to change the outcome of a committee vote. From what I understand, Whittington was not contacted, much less consulted about the change. She was notified by mail after the fact.
I do not believe the speaker's actions in this matter constitute business as usual. The speaker of the House is not a statewide elective office. The speaker is elected by members of the House and has only those powers afforded him by the House rules. While the removal of Whittington from the Education Committee is technically within the rules, the Speaker's use of his authority to achieve personal legislative goals can be considered an abuse of power given by fellow House members.
Will the speaker play musical chairs every time he doesn't get his way?