With elections now finished and Louisiana House Democrats finding them in a minority for the first time in over a century as a new Legislature heads towards its organizational session, speculation turns its new leadership. With the biggest question apparently settled, it now is time for Democrats to dream big in the hopes of avoiding the nightmare of their reality when it comes time to handing out committee assignments and chairmanships, and the policy implications that come from that.
With the imprimatur of Gov. Bobby Jindal, state Rep. Chuck Kleckley appears poised to assume the speakership, jumping current Speaker Pro Tem and recent GOP convert (in label only) Joel Robideaux. The latter has complained about his fate but, unless he pushes the speaker’s matter to a vote that would embarrass politically Kleckley and Jindal, he could well hang onto his spot.
Regardless of Robideaux’s fate, created will be a situation to which Democrats seem resigned, the only two full-time jobs in the chamber being in Republican hands.
While unprecedented in over a century, it is perfectly consistent with past practice when one party had a clear majority over the other as Republicans do now over Democrats. The last term was aberrant, in that a closely-divided chamber with a slight majority of Democrats at its commencement picked a Republican speaker, then balanced it with a Democrat for the second spot.
However, Democrats appear to hold out hope that they’ll be able to cling to some of their past power by virtue of committee selections, particularly with the leaders of them. Since the chamber exited its one-party status in more than a trivial way beginning in the 1990s, chairmanships have become a bipartisan affair, even as committee compositions reflected party balances with the most important committees overweighed in favor of the majority party. This may be expected to continue.
But House Democrats seem too optimistic. State Rep. John Bel Edwards, who leads the delegation, mused that since Democrats roughly had 40 percent of the seats, they should get 40 percent, or six or seven, of the 16 standing committee chairmanships.
However, history shows Democrats never were that magnanimous when they ran the joint. The most recent year of best comparison, when the same party held the governorship and House, was after 2003 elections. There were 17 standing committees in those days, and with 67 Democrats to start the session or around 64 percent of the body, they took 12 or 71 percent of the chairmanships. And of the five Republicans that scored one, only voted consistently conservatively and in a reform direction, with two being more moderate and the other two being probably the most liberal Republicans in the chamber.
January should produce similar statistics. After Kleckley, with Jindal’s input, sorts things out, expect the GOP to possess 11 of the 16. One will go to existing Appropriations Chairman and more conservative Democrat Jim Fannin, it composition of which otherwise will be overloaded with Republicans. And of the others, potentially all of them might not be white Democrats.
This is because of another tradition that apportions out chairmanships balanced by race. For example, after 2003 elections with about a fifth of members, all Democrats, black, these legislators received 29 percent of chairmanships. Since all blacks were then and well as today are Democrats, when Democrats controlled it was easier to over-apportion such slots to blacks.
As blacks will comprise their highest proportion ever in the House at a little over a quarter, that might realize the desire of Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus chairwoman Pat Smith for its members to head four committees. The only reason it could be fewer is the inability of Republicans to find four black Democrats, all of whom scheduled for swearing in fairly can be said to be liberal ideologically, to head up four innocuous-enough committees that will wield the least policy influence.
Yet it could happen. Jindal endorsed five such incumbents this fall who achieved reelection. Reviewing the least consequential committees in the House, three have one of these black Democrats serving on them presently. In addition, a more important committee, Education, has one of them, state Rep. Austin Badon, already serving as chairman.
Still, the 2012-16 House seems set to have an obvious Republican and conservative tilt, as most of the chairmanships going to GOP members will get doled out to the more conservative/reformist members. Democrats as a unified force will provide just token opposition, as they don’t have the numbers and, on any given issue, Republicans usually can expect a couple of the more conservative of them to defect, defeating any obnoxious legislation that may arise from even the lesser committees where Democrats have chairmen and be will closer to parity in voting power. White Democrats, now the minority in their own party, in particular will have power only in rare circumstances where two-thirds majorities need commanding for action to occur.
Elections have consequences. The conservative/reformist policy products of the upcoming House will make for a sharp break with the past. The era of Democrats having anything more than paltry influence on policy is over, for the foreseeable future.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 10:45