This is a question we’re hearing a lot of in conversation with people who spend their time lobbying or otherwise observing Louisiana’s state legislature as it winds its way through the current legislative session.
In truth, it’s an old conversation. It really came up during the battle for control of the House and Senate following the 2019 elections. There were a number of statements made then about the definition of “independence,” and what we found out was that the definition “inside the rail,” meaning among the members of the legislature, wasn’t the same as everybody else understands it to be.
The common understanding, when applied to the Louisiana legislature, is that “independent” means “not controlled by the governor.” That’s based on the history of the institution, which has more or less always, with very few exceptions, done whatever they’ve been told to do by the Fourth Floor of the Capitol where the governor’s office is.
Independence from the Fourth Floor is really the only independence which counts for the people of Louisiana, particularly when the voters pick a legislature which is more Republican than ever while narrowly re-electing a partisan Democrat governor. It’s patently obvious the voters want the legislature to block John Bel Edwards’ worst impulses and to force him to govern as the moderate he claims to be.
But back in December of 2019, we were told that isn’t the operative definition of “independence” that the legislature would prescribe for itself. Rather, the people who ended up in leadership positions in that body chose to claim independence from the people who elected them.
Meaning the conservative coalition of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, the state GOP and several of the other business trade groups who combined to spend some $7 million to elect what’s supposed to be the most conservative legislature Louisiana has ever had.
That definition is one the legacy media, and most notably the Advocate, jumped on and touted. The House, which had been truly independent from Edwards during his first term while Taylor Barras was its speaker, elected Clay Schexnayder as a measure of showing that kind of independence.
Of course, the perception from a lot of observers was that Schexnayder’s ascension might have come as a demonstration of independence from LCCM, which backed Sherman Mack for the speakership, but at the cost of independence from Edwards. Schexnayder went in with more Democrat votes than Republican ones, and that came courtesy of Edwards.
And so far in this term, there hasn’t been much independence out of this legislature that we would credit.
Everything we’re hearing is that most of the “cultural” bills, the ones taking on hot-button issues like Critical Race Theory, constitutional carry and protecting girls’ sports from incursions by biological males, are going to ultimately be parked and not brought to the floor in the House and Senate. Yesterday the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, met without discussing her bill that would switch to closed party primaries in federal elections in Louisiana.
That raised some eyebrows. The committee’s agenda was full with other bills, to be sure, but rumors are now running wild that Senate President Page Cortez is leaning on Hewitt not to move that bill.
But yesterday the state GOP put out a statement saying the Republican State Central Committee had approved a resolution calling for the passage of that bill.
Does this indicate Page Cortez is independent from the Louisiana Republican Party? There are more than a million Republican voters in Louisiana. Those are the people who elected Page Cortez to the Senate. He’s independent from his own constituents?
Or does he think the LAGOP doesn’t represent Republican voters?
We hate to tell him, but the RSCC is a body of people who were elected just like Page Cortez was, and each RSCC member represents a smaller group of people than he does. They’re closer to the people than a state senator is, and there are no perks or trappings of power associated with being a member of the RSCC.
Last year was the first in this quadrennial term. It was spent dealing with the COVID epidemic and Edwards’ rather draconian lockdowns which did little or nothing to stop the spread of the virus. The House fiddled around for months before finally bringing a petition to reopen the state, while Cortez’ Senate did nothing to fight for Louisiana’s small businesses and individuals who needed to get back to work. The Senate didn’t lift a finger for our civil liberties.
So if we’re now hearing that measures like Beryl Amedee’s and Beth Mizell’s bills to protect girls’ sports are going to get parked, which is what we’re hearing, and the reason given is that the leadership doesn’t want to drag their members through big cultural fights this session, it tells us something.
It tells us our suspicions might well be true. That the independence these guys really want is from the people who elected them.
We won’t name names here, but this reminds us of a story from the previous legislative term. There was a certain bill the conservative coalition in the state had prioritized which would have really stuck it to the teachers’ unions and their ability to retain or grow their membership. Where that bill had passed elsewhere in the country it had drained the unions pretty badly, and it was thought that mortally wounding the teachers’ unions in Louisiana would open the door to some real education reform.
A certain state legislator lobbied those groups for authorship of the bill. He said he wanted to carry it. Getting it passed would show that he was an effective conservative those groups could get behind to succeed Barras as the next speaker. So he got the chance.
But the bill ran into trouble on the House floor. Everybody knew that Edwards would veto it, and its passage in the Senate was iffy. There weren’t going to be enough votes to override a veto.
The conservative groups told the legislator in question they wanted the bill to get a vote in any event, because they wanted to put Republican members on the record as to their votes on the bill. It was something which would be scored on all the scorecards, and those groups were going to make decisions about endorsements and campaign checks based on which legislators were yeses and which were nos.
The legislator said no. He said he wouldn’t do that to his guys.
Which made the conservatives furious, because they could have easily found another legislator willing to sponsor the bill and move it to a vote on the House floor. They’d been double-crossed, and because of that fact they rejected the idea of supporting the legislator as the Speaker.
And the legislator was then one of the prime authors of this narrative that an “independent” legislature is one who isn’t bound by any loyalty to the people who elected them.
We’re keeping that in mind as we watch some of these “controversial” bills move, or not. Because if independence the way these guys define it translates to unaccountability, then that’s independence which is worthless for us as voters.
Particularly when these bills represent positions held by large majorities of voters, if not statewide then certainly in the districts these legislators represent.