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Leadership loggerheads prevent legislative assertion

Fireworks from legislative leaders made for good spectacle, but what do they and the Louisiana Legislature’s final product tell us about the relative distribution of power among the branches of government in Louisiana these days?

A canard has circulated for decades that the Louisiana governor is a very powerful institution but, as this is a canard, that’s not exactly the case. This impression no doubt extended from the period of the 1921 Constitution where the office was more powerful because the governor wielded far more appointive powers with an extremely fragmented executive branch; thus, his was the only institution that could bring it all together. The 1974 version hacked many of these away but by statute still left a fair amount of appointments. However, the trend since has been to prune these appointments as well. Both versions actually grant fairly modest formal powers otherwise to the governor.

Still, a germ of truth exists in this belief because informal use of powers can be substantial. For example, a governor can wring votes out of legislators by threatening to do harm with a line item veto to their “members’ amendments,” or state tax dollars steered to specific local projects and uses in a legislator’s district. However, note that this leverage exists at the sufferance of the Legislature. For example, if consensus existed within it that state policy about assisting the indigent elderly solely should be through the Elderly and Disabled Waiver program for Medicaid, there would not be, as there is today, a couple of dozen member amendments funding individual parishes’ Councils on Aging to provide the same services. (This happens because if all those funds were put into the EDA waiver, individual legislators could not take credit back home for specific assistance in their districts in the hopes of gaining votes for reelection, so they prefer to do it this much more inefficient way, correctly earning this practice the sobriquet “slush funds.”)

Therefore, there would be nothing for the governor to hold over their heads to twist their arms. Even if they continued with the practice, they could override these vetoes with a veto session. But logrolling incentives alone (more simply, everybody scratching each others’ backs when every legislator pledges he will override every line item veto regardless whether his is one so targeted) appear insufficient to trigger this reaction, since a veto session never has been held under the current Constitution.

In other words, if sufficient will existed, the Legislature could set the tone and dictate what gets done, given the relative weakness of the governor’s formal powers. Additionally, the advantage of staff and resources decades ago by the governor to help formulate legislation and especially the case on budgetary matters mostly has disappeared as the Legislature has become more professional with its own substantial resources now. However, the capacity simply has not been there which by default thrusts, usually willingly, the governor into the situation of directing the body.

And this session provided an interesting test case of the dynamic. Given his preoccupation with the oil spill crisis, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s influence was much reduced from the level of involvement typically seen regarding a governor and the Legislature. In the end, his intervention appeared necessary to get things going. Yet this does not exactly mean, to paraphrase one of my colleagues, that there needs to be active gubernatorial involvement for the Legislature to function effectively. It does have, institutionally speaking, all the tools to do so and not need gubernatorial input, but rather it has lacked in capacity to utilize them.

Until recently, that capacity largely has been defined by the lack of desire to lead and the physical resources to do so. But resources ceased being an issue years ago for the legislative leadership and the strengthening of its ability here multiplied because as these accrued to the few members of it the vast majority of legislators still have a paucity of them – dramatically increasing leadership power relative to the remainder of the chambers. It also would seem that, especially with the current House Speaker Jim Tucker and Senate President Joel Chaisson, that they desire personally to exert power independently of the governor Jindal, so the will has been there.

Nevertheless, increased capacity to act as assertive institutions did not manifest this time because these two leaders fundamentally were at odds with each other. These leaders can be described similarly when viewing their past voting records (available here): they are not the most conservative nor most liberal members of their chambers, but Tucker is one of the more conservative representatives and Chaisson is one of the more liberal senators. That difference on big issues simply often is too vast of a divide for these leaders to goad their houses into cooperating as they must in order for the Legislature as a whole to be the lead policy-maker in government.

As such, Jindal had to step in on the biggest decision, the budget, and maintained a presence on a few select other issues that got those through, but where relatively uninvolved nothing momentous happened because of the gulf between the agendas of Tucker and Chaisson. However, change the dynamic to where the leadership was more ideologically monolithic and if the desire remains the same, the influence of the governor could be made much smaller at the expense of the Legislature as a whole.

In the end, a basic feature of American government – separation of powers – given the current political dynamics in Louisiana is the main impediment to potential legislative assertiveness. There is nothing institutionally present that gives the governor dominance over legislative government. Only voters’ choices to deliver to which parties electoral majorities in which chamber and the personalities of legislative leaders that come from that process today create the recipe for continued gubernatorial precedence in policy-making.

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