Louisiana’s political culture reached a milestone when the Legislature resoundingly rebuffed staying home from a veto override session.
Barely a third of legislators by the deadline last week turned in a ballot signifying they didn’t want one to occur, contrary to what has been the case since the implementation of the current 1974 Constitution. In the Senate, it followed party lines with all Democrats sending in one. In the House, the same happened except that Democrat state Rep. Francis Thompson didn’t and Republican Joe Stagni did. Of the three no party representatives, state Rep. Roy Daryl Adams didn’t while state Reps. Joe Marino and new former Democrat Malinda White did.
Putting down its foot on Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ vetoes makes two telling departures from the past. Firstly, until now a governor’s veto of bills passed late in a session have remained sacrosanct. With an asymmetry of power – the full weight of most of the executive branch compared to the relatively puny resources of the Legislature, especially in information, with thousand of full-time employees versus part-time legislators – governors almost always could maneuver things so that any potentially controversial veto could occur late enough so that only an override session could cancel it.
With impunity, governors could threaten individual legislators on budget items or bills unless lawmakers played ball, both knowing the vetoes stuck. Further reinforcing this, the override session itself had to occur at an inconvenient time of the year for part-timers. Only until legislators understood that collective action by them, even at some inconvenience to their personal lives, could this dynamic be altered in their favor.
But, secondarily, part of this revolved around chamber leaders. Used to be everybody was joined at the hip: governors appointed floor leaders who could use that connection to win fealty from members, although many shared a community of interests anyway. About the only exceptions occurred during the governorship of Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer, when his leaders represented a minority of such interests and his leadership was too weak to bolster them which led to a revolt replacing them, and during that of Republican Gov. Dave Treen, when his supporters elected to the Legislature were so few he never had a chance to supply leadership. In both instances backers of former and future Democrat Gov. Edwin Edwards filled the void.
The community of interests keyed this relationship, where an overwhelming number of lawmakers backed either the governor or governor-in-waiting. In turn, leaders would reflect the same. As long as the majority of policy-making occurred in agreement, by consent of lawmakers the governor (present or future) would provide direction.
But that eroded considerably with the election of John Bel Edwards in 2015 against chambers with large GOP majorities whose agendas differed starkly from his. However, he maintained some control in the Senate through the inertia of its allowing former state Sen. John Alario to stay Senate president, who then cooperated with Edwards.
The divide deepened further in 2019 with elections producing an Edwards rerun but chambers above or on the precipice of supermajority status for Republicans, an important marker in that this would provide enough votes for successful overrides. Edwards and legislative Democrats tried to compensate by taking advantage of House Republicans’ inexperience in governing by engineering the election of GOP state Rep. Clay Schexnayder as speaker necessarily with their minority votes. It was hoped that this would produce leverage over him that could prevent bills they didn’t like from passing.
Yet missteps by Schexnayder, most prominently dumping one of his floor leaders because of Democrats’ whining, drove home even to the minority portion of the GOP that made him speaker that allowing coordination between Edwards and Schexnayder was tantamount to subverting its agenda at odds with Edwards’, a realization reinforced by conservative activists pledging to hold Republicans accountable for failure to put certain measures into law whatever it took. Coming to grips with his precarious position, Schexnayder rallied them to take a leading role in stumping for the override session.
In other words, the community of interests marking the past evaporated. Without a common agenda bond with the governor, the legislative majority refused to let the governor call the tune through the leadership, demonstrating that leaders needed to stick with it or potentially face a revolt; with no governor-member connection, the governor no longer could guarantee them their posts. With this Edwards being unable to fill the void, the GOP majority of members did. They needed at the very least the override session, and so they got it.
It’s like when somebody gets up enough gumption to leap off the 10-meter diving platform at a swimming pool: after the first time it’s a whole lot easier and will happen a lot more often. It’s the natural outgrowth of legislative independence coming from divergent agendas between a narrowly-elected governor and the different distribution of voters that installed a large legislative majority with markedly different views. And if the same agenda divergence occurs in the future, we now know they will have no fear to challenge a permanently-weakened institution again and again.