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Tucker power moves may have policy repercussions

As I was saying about House Speaker Jim Tucker’s desire to create an independent power base and the relative lack of professionalism of the Louisiana Legislature?

With Republican Tucker’s removal of Republican state Reps. John LaBruzzo and John Schroder from the House Appropriations Committee, and of Democrat state Reps. Charmaine Stiaes and Noble Ellington from the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, not only did he makes moves that would draw the admiration of ex-U.S. House Speaker “Uncle” Joe Cannon, but also demonstrated a desire to mold the Louisiana House into a source of power beholden more to his wishes than to party, ideology, or alliance with Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. The Speaker is given the latitude by the House to make all committee assignments and their leadership decisions.

Tucker is not directly saying so, but he made it fairly unambiguous that reasons for the moves stemmed from Ellington being supported by LaBruzzo, Schroder, and Stiaes in the contest for Speaker Pro-Tempore concluded earlier in the week. Tucker had said at the time of the contest that some votes didn’t go the way the way he expected, and later added certain personnel moves among committees were going to be made related in some way to some legislators not keeping their words. Presumably, this meant that in Tucker’s view the three had pledged support to the winner, state Rep. Joel Robideaux, even though Ellington claimed LaBruzzo and Schroder said they had made any firm commitments to him well before the vote.

Unusually (and as a sign of its aggravation with the whole affair), public confirmation of this interpretation of events came from the Jindal Administration whose Chief of Staff Tim Teepell said it had asked Tucker not to retaliate to minimize “distraction.” Again, that such a public and now publicized break occurred demonstrates the degree to which Tucker is willing to assert independence – especially given that Robideaux’s new office is not that important and seems an unlikely vehicle over which to make such a power play. Important to remember here, however, is that the move is more over demonstration of power and strengthening bonds of loyalty than anything else – acquisition of power and engendering loyalty being the only tools by which a Speaker can utilize to stay in office and to function with fewer constraints on him.

This also is evident in both the actions themselves and their outcomes. LaBruzzo and Stiaes recently had been criticized by Tucker for lax attendance on the Appropriations Committee; they claimed their records were no worse than anybody else’s. This may have been a warning shot to both to vote “correctly” in a contest that, as the final vote indicated, was closer than perhaps Tucker had liked. Had Tucker not wanted so openly to display the true dynamics behind it all, he could have booted both off this committee for this reason. It also would not have been so nakedly obvious had he then removed Ellington from either committee (he sat on both).

But dumping Stiaes from HGA instead and especially the ouster of Schroder was as blatant as signals get that Tucker does not brook what he perceived as prevarication as an impediment to his wielding of power. Schroder is a particularly interesting example – as one of the most conservative members of the House (his Louisiana Legislature Log rating for 2009 being 90), he could be expected to be a valuable vote and natural ally for Tucker on that committee yet Tucker showed no compunction in giving him the boot.

Further reinforcement of this comes from the significance of his successor choices – Democrats James Armes and Rosalind Jones for Appropriations and Republicans Nancy Landry and Nick Lorusso (all of whom voted for Robideuax). Not only are they, in the aggregate, more junior than those replaced, but they completely changed the partisan balances of their committees. With these moves, on Appropriations Tucker actually took a Republican advantage (not counting his ex-officio membership on it) of 13-10 and made it a deficit of 11-12, while on HGA the numbers (ignoring the one independent) went from a marginal 10-8 GOP advantage to a blowout 12-6. This shows that it is more important to Tucker to have presumably loyal individuals on the most important legislative committee in the House, Appropriations, to better stamp his authority on the budget, than the power he thinks he could derive from putting party and probably ideological loyalists on it. That’s reinforced by meaninglessly padding the HGA GOP advantage.

(If you’re keeping track, the scorecard numbers, which reflect ideology and reformist impulses where higher scores mean more conservative and reformist, for 2009 of those replaced on Appropriations were Schroder 90 and LaBruzzo 90, while the replacements’ were Armes 60 and Jones 10.)

That Tucker headed in this direction shows the truly unprofessional (that is, relatively unconstrained by institutionally-based norms) nature of the House and how personalistic politics (norms focused on personal charisma and relationships) continue to hold sway. This allows Tucker, despite his being one of the more partisan and conservative members of the House (2009 score of 80), to continue in power in a body almost exactly evenly divided between the parties, because he can command fealty from a number of Democrats who will vote his way when the chips are down. This should be no surprise; he began acquiring this loyalty when he spearheaded a politically-suicidal move to pay part-time legislators full-time salaries early in his tenure.

Most interesting will be how these decisions play out over the next couple of years. In particular, committee voting on the budget and redistricting might prove fascinating and produce a number of speculative scenarios about why things will happen as they do and what might have happened otherwise. From the perspective of conservatives and reformers, they had better hope that the results of this repositioning of slots by Tucker, believed to be one of them, don’t set back their policy agendas.

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