There are three certainties in life – death, taxes, and sore losers among Louisiana legislators who want to blame others for problems of their own making. The fallout over House Speaker Chuck Kleckley’s booting a pair of House Appropriations Committee members over a contract to have insurance administration currently done by the state performed by a third party administrator reminds us of that.
Seven House Republicans last week, in a special joint meeting of Appropriations and the Senate Finance Committee ruled to have the power to approve of the contract, voted for moving the matter to a vote which well may have lead to its defeat on the House side. Their Senate colleagues refused to bring up the matter that would have led to a vote, prompting withdrawal of the contract as is presumably to be reintroduced in modified form in the near future. With six of them having put together demonstrably conservative/reform records over the past five years, their votes came more as succumbing to constituent and public relations pressures than as any signaling of repudiation of their political beliefs.
Of those seven, four held spots appointed through election by members from their 2000-10 U.S. House districts, meaning leverage against them could come only from their other committee assignments made by Kleckley. One, state Rep. Jim Morris, already had been stripped of a position he coveted on another committee, so there wasn’t a whole lot of inducement to be directed against him. Another, state Rep. Brett Geymann, has no other committee assignments since he declared himself in reclusion earlier this year (and is a pal of Kleckley’s so is allowed presently to have just the one House assignment). A third, state Rep. Rogers Pope, has been an inconsistent supporter of Kleckley’s agenda so punishment by removing him from another committee would not produce much leverage. The fourth, state Rep. John Schroder, has been perhaps the most consistent conservative voice in the Legislature in the past five years, and got a pass as a result.
This left only three where stripping them of a committee spot on that committee could work for power projection purposes. These appointees of Kleckley included state Rep. Tim Burns, who also had proven valuable for the conservative/reform agenda, which earned overlooking his rebellion. Another, state Rep. Joe Harrison, had not been so helpful in his bucking of Kleckley so he merited reassignment.
Harrison responded by calling Kleckley in essence a puppet of Gov. Bobby Jindal and further assigned mesmerizing powers to former gubernatorial aide, now getting contracted work from Jindal, Timmy Teepell, in the matter. He then equated them all with “bullies … taking … lunch money.” Elaborating, he charged that something like “[w]hen we can’t speak our mind as elected officials, there’s something wrong. There’s something inherently wrong with the system as it exists today. We’re no longer a third branch of government.”
More seriously came the departure of state Rep. Cameron Henry, who, with one exception, had been a loyal Kleckley ally – so much so he had been the committee’s vice chairman. He said he correctly expected this reaction, because committee leaders above all should be loyal to the guy that put them there, and in this position going counter to the leader’s agenda begs for punishment if that leader is to demonstrate to the rest of the body that he will use power to promote his agenda. He also accused the Jindal Administration of behind-the-scenes maneuvering over this, and concurred with Harrison that “the governor and the speaker are one and the same.” He also said “We didn’t get elected to trust people. We got elected to ask questions.”
Reviewing these comments, they provide ample instruction in how to channel selective outrage and to produce blame-shifting. Part of the latter comes in the irrelevant assertion that Jindal controls the legislative leadership, which somehow is supposed to give their commentary on their sackings credibility and simultaneously provide an exculpatory rationale to make them look like some kind of martyrs. For one thing, there’s plenty of evidence to show that House speakers act quite independently of governors, as the end of the previous speaker’s term showed. Further, because Kleckley and Jindal act in an associated manner does not equate to a correlated manner, i.e. Jindal causes Kleckley’s behavior. Highly congruent public policy agendas arrived at independently will produce remarkably similar behavior in their pursuit.
But let’s go whole hog here and assume that Jindal has become a Leviathan sovereign and when he tells Kleckley to jump the speaker asks how high. Why would Jindal become so powerful in this regard relative to the Legislature when the state’s Constitution doesn’t give him a whole lot of power, much less over the Legislature? Because he can flex power in other informal ways; to use as one example, line-item vetoes against specific spending aimed at benefitting a legislator’s district. And why can he use this kind of leverage to entice legislators to back him? Because they let him get away with it.
Any time Harrison and Henry want to rally the House to fight back, such as by getting the body to overturn any line-item veto (as well as the Senate concurring), they are free to do so. Or, they could send a message of “legislative independence” by fomenting rebelling against the presumed extension of the governor, as they claim the speaker is. It’s worked before: in 1990, the state Senate replaced its president backed by then-Gov. Buddy Roemer. If the will is there, they will succeed.
However, what we know and they know is that won’t succeed for the very reason that destroys their argument: the majority of the Legislature agrees with the Jindal agenda, not theirs. The Legislature condones gubernatorial influence because its majorities see more congruence than not with Jindal’s agenda. Knowledge of this, in fact, leads the pair to make, upon inspection, some unhinged arguments.
Starting with simple hypocrisy, Harrison and Henry condemn their fates manufactured by a system from which they benefitted in their prior appointments. They didn’t get there, and certainly not Henry in his leadership position, out of the goodness of Kleckley’s heart or because of coin tosses. They got them because Kleckley thought they would help his agenda; Harrison even said Kleckley assured him he could speak his mind – which is not the same thing as acting in a way that subverts Kleckley’s desires. So we hear not a peep out of them about the presumed system flaws when it helps them, but we sure get an earful when they run afoul of its rules. Nor did we get a peep out of them when Morris fell victim to it previously. Where was the outrage then?
Yet the most stupid implication they made in their comments is that the system somehow stifles opposition. They may correct me if I’m wrong, but according to the Louisiana Constitution they each have a vote in the House, and they get opportunities subject to House rules to speak on legislation on the floor, including asking questions. Nor is there any constitutional or legal provision preventing them from communicating directly to constituents and indirectly through the media. So in what way do their dismissals constitute any extra-constitutional, extra-legal limitation on their rights as legislators to have input into the policy-making process?
Rather than accept their blathering as some profound judgment identifying crisis in government, let’s see it as it is: fulminations of two crybabies trying to pass themselves off as victims of a system they once aided and abetted in order to reap its benefits, a legitimized system that is supported by a majority in the Legislature, that is not opposed by a majority of the public, and largely because it has produced public policy congruent with what the public has wanted. Just because they are in the minority and politically buffeted by power arrangements that no longer suit them does not convey intellectual validity to their screeds.