Legislators want strong gov.; critics exaggerate to bash
Every so often, perhaps goaded by statements emanating from some legislative elites or other outsider malcontents over the direction of gubernatorial policy, it seems some handwringing must occur in Louisiana’s media about the presumed powerful office of governor. On these occasions, it’s important to remember just why this happens and exactly what it means – which is a whole lot less alarmist than some breathless advocates would have one believe.
Thus, the tempest in a teapot quality to the whole exercise distracts us from the fundamental facts: legislators lacking courage want governors to lead them around while complaining about it, and intellectually lazy critics will use that fake griping to bash governors they don’t like. As long as these facts are ignored by those wishing to alter the arrangement, Louisiana’s gubernatorial/legislative dynamic never will change.
Yes, Louisiana’s governor can find himself in a position to influence strongly policy emerging from the Louisiana Legislature. Remarkably, it does not come from the formal powers of the office, which, according to a long-standing metric created by an academic researcher to assess formal powers of governors, are modest ranking right below the top third of all the states. Rather, they come from using other means. Often, three of these less formal avenues are identified.
First, the governor enjoys a line-item veto power on appropriations bills, requiring two-thirds majorities on each cast in order to overrides, which seemingly cows legislators into supporting him as they value stuff coming into their districts that makes them look better to constituents for reelection purposes. Second, the State Bond Commission makes funding choices from capital budget requests forwarded by the Legislature, which the governor can control through allies who owe their appointments to him, which serve the same function by delivering stuff to constituents. They have these jobs because the governor helps get them elected to leadership positions in their respective chambers by marshalling coalitions through the chicken-and-egg process of promising assistance in making sure their pet projects avoid line-item vetoes.
The circularity of the process – leaders are there because governors built coalitions holding out line item veto/SBC approval carrots and sticks to put them there the power which they get from that they may use to keep members in line to allow the governor to hang line vetoes/SBC approval over their heads – points out the inherent road to freedom from self-made trap: have majorities stand up to governors and the legislative leaders they assist into their offices. A supermajority of members simply has to want to exert legislative power by rejecting in mass line item vetoes, or to write up capital budgets that leave no room for discretion exercisable by the SBC. They all might feel handcuffed, but each has the key to all of the others’ cuffs: once each starts unlocking the cuffs of all others until enough free each other, then they can pick leaders among themselves – again, if they feel strongly enough about exerting independence and are willing to do so.
But they don’t and therefore aren’t. This brings the third reason to the forefront, that the Legislature lacks the institutional resources to challenge the executive branch, such as in the area of budgeting. It’s comprised of part-time legislators with limited financial resources and infrastructure, so it’s asserted. Without this backing, the argument goes this discourages independence and submission to gubernatorial near-omnipotence.
It’s an erroneous supposition. The Legislature, with its $93 million budget, already has substantial resources at its disposal. Many of its employees are full-time, many of whom already do considerable financial analysis on state fiscal matters. And if it needs more, it simply appropriates more and there’s nothing the governor can do to stop it. It bears noting that, relevant to all of these cases, there is almost nothing the Louisiana Legislature cannot do in state government with two-thirds majorities.
Yet instead of its members asserting their wills, they choose a Fromm-like escape from freedom. They have the power to do it, but then willingly surrender it to an outside force because it reduces their need to think and act on their own because then that increases their accountability and responsibility for whatever actions they take. That change in course may translate into voters paying more attention to policy aspects of their decisions, and thereby increase the chances of their losing reelection and power as a result. After all, doesn’t everybody like “free” stuff, but not everybody likes policy outcomes, so if you can take credit for the former but then blame some mythical all-powerful governor on the latter, why not?
Make no mistake: this arrangement continues precisely because it is what legislators want, because in their minds it maximizes their chances of continuing in office to exercise power. They think so because of the state’s historical populist political culture, which overemphasizes redistribution that discourages the belief that free individuals control their own actions and outcomes thereof. They unconsciously accept the notion that the least risky way to maintain constituent favor is with a Faustian bargain of immediate constituent gratification, amplified by couching political discourse in terms that encourage learned constituent helplessness, by using government to collect and spread more resources than by reducing it and having citizens do more for themselves and make more funding policy decisions at the local level.
In essence, then, when you hear a legislator whine about gubernatorial power, understand that you’re likely listening to a hypocrite and self-handicapper to boot. At least they don’t hyperventilate over the issue, which describes this effort that also addresses in part the gubernatorial-legislative power relations, and extends to a consideration about the executive branch that has all the persuasiveness of Chicken Little.
For one thing, as previously noted, the view that a governor should tolerate public disagreement by his subordinates over policy shows lack of any real understanding of the nature and purpose of executive power, which does not require that popularly-elected executives should refrain voluntarily from ensuring that their policy preferences are followed by the subordinates they appoint. For another, it descends into the ridiculous to suggest that someone protected by tenure in the academy who got that job because of a background in politics with views shared almost universally in the academy but which is the opposite of the chief executive’s should have any concern over his dismissal from the governor’s office, over writings criticizing the governor that hardly anybody reads.
Or that the head of a formal faculty debating/spleen venting body would be so out of it to think that tenure-secured higher education institution administrators steeped in academia’s liberal ethos would not protect their own and act to the best of their abilities subversively against the policy wishes of a conservative governor, even as they want to create an image of fear and loathing. This paranoia exhibited in both musings speaks far more to an inflated sense of self-importance and desire to create straw man allusions to martyrdom than to any reality.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 11:10