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Switch ratifies GOP majority party status in LA

State Rep. Simone Champagne’s switch from Democrat to Republican by the numbers creates history, but does not change the reality that effectively the Louisiana House of Representatives has been run by the GOP since 2007.

The change in partisanship gives the House 51 Republicans and Democrats each, with three independents. It is the first time since 1878, when Reconstruction politics still hung over the state and allowed Republicans to exert electoral power beyond their numbers, that Democrats have not had a numerical plurality in the House. In the post-Reconstruction era (from 1880), until state Rep. Michael Jackson’s move to no party status in 2008, they always had an absolute majority and from 1900-80 never had less than about 90 percent of all seats. In fact, from 1900-64, there were no Republicans in the House.

But the one-party era of dominance is long gone and instead now the argument can be made that an era of Republican Party majority is ahead for the foreseeable future. Republican Jim Tucker became Speaker in 2008 because some conservative Democrats were willing to support him (he was elected unanimously, a sign that he had a majority going into the organizational session and therefore no one else was willing to oppose him). Further, the voting records of several Democrats show they are likely supporters of conservative agendas associated with the Republican Party; in 2009, 10 Democrats scored 75 or better on the Louisiana Legislature Log’s index where 100 is considered the maximum conservative/reform record (Champagne was one of them).


Landrieu rebuke reminds LA of hazard of having her

Even though she’s been a Democrat all her life and now in the Senate for approaching 14 years, Sen. Mary Landrieu still has not internalized how her political party operates – either stay completely loyal to liberalism, or you will be used and burned at the liberal leadership’s convenience, to your state’s detriment.

Landrieu got another reminder of this when she was passed over for the chairmanship of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Homeland Security because of the death of the longest-serving member in the Senate’s and Congress’ history, reformed Ku Klux Klan Democrat Robert Byrd. That left only 30 members on the panel, 17 of them Democrats of which Landrieu ranked 12th in seniority, with her being its most senior Democrat member without a subcommittee chairmanship (these are doled out only to members of the majority party).

Seniority only rarely does not determine who receives these slots, itself determined primarily by years on the panel, supplemented by consecutive years in the Senate and then total years in the Senate, conditioned by other rules about apportionment of leadership slots, such as that on one committee a senator can be chairman of the entire committee or of only one subcommittee on it. Although Landrieu ranks on this subcommittee now only fifth among Democrats in seniority, all living ahead of her already have chairmanships of other subcommittees.

Yet on an interim basis it was announced that Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who ranks 14th overall among Democrats and sixth on the subcommittee, would act as chairman for the remainder of the life of this Congress. Seniority’s violation was justified this time for two reasons. One, according to Democrat staffers, is that he would not have to relinquish major positions while she would if she got the job, as she already serves as chairwoman of another more minor committee and of a temporary committee, creating an inconvenient shuffling late in this Senate’s life. But given Landrieu’s reaction, that didn’t seem to concern her much. She appeared quite willing to make this tradeoff.

The other reason was forwarded by Lautenberg, who said when he returned to the Senate in 2003 after retiring in 2001 he wanted his seniority to be treated in a consecutive fashion, whose 26 years would give him more than Landrieu and that he got that commitment from leaders. Whether that’s true or whether that’s been followed on his other 10 committee slots is hard to determine. It also means that the subcommittee still would be headed by the oldest senator in the body, as Byrd had that distinction now belonging to Lautenberg in his mid-eighties, over 35 years Landrieu’s senior and himself not in good health fighting cancer. It begs the question why Lautenberg would be put there, although he has said he is now cancer free.

Lautenberg also expanded upon the real, not admitted reason why he jumped Landrieu in the queue: because he is a reliable liberal vote who bailed out the party under questionable circumstances. He came back after retirement because scandal had enveloped the other Democrat New Jersey senator at a point too late to remove the other guy from the 2002 election ballot. However, the Democrats who controlled New Jersey including its Supreme Court with its cooperation were allowed to ignore the law and put Lautenberg on the ballot instead. Only Lautenberg would have worked as a winnable candidate as only five weeks remained before the election, and he did win.

Since then, Lautenberg has continued as one of the most liberal senators (American Conservative Union lifetime voting score where 0 is most liberal of 4.76) while Landrieu is much less reliably liberal (lifetime 22.65 where 100 is most conservative). Although acting as the 60th and decisive vote (with inducement) to impose a ruinous health care insurance system on the country that will cost more with poorer results, Landrieu does stray off the reservation, such as with her recent criticism of the ideologically-driven Pres. Barack Obama decision to halt deepwater offshore drilling, too often. This reinforces the rule followed by the liberals who lead the Democrats regarding their members: you’re either always with us and reap power and privilege, or you are to be used strategically and be thrown table scraps from time to time.

This incident reminds Landrieu of that, but she is craven enough to accept this bargain even if she pipes up about its disadvantages from time to time. Operating in this fashion is the only way Democrats can keep power nationally because they are at odds with the majority of Americans’ beliefs and unable to persuade them otherwise. Thus, they cull enough votes from impure liberals like Landrieu to supplement the solid pure base to win for the liberal agenda, having to tolerate the impure because they are the only kind of liberal that can get elected from their various states to give them a majority.

Landrieu and other submit to this because it’s the only way they can get power by having their party get it (although with a majority and allowed to pursue liberalism, this always puts the party in deep electoral trouble within a short period of time, such as at the present). And this was just another occasion for the leaders to remind her of that, that despite her begging, she won’t get their scraps this time and needs to go back and lie in the corner. With that, however, they send out another message that they’d rather not to the people of Louisiana – why settle for a senator treated as second class and with reduced influence in her own party when the election of a conservative Republican would produce somebody prized by and influential in the GOP?


Whiners can fix political veto use with political solutions

Gov. Bobby Jindal has issued line item vetoes on the bill where “members’ amendments” got deposited, and as with every governor the question arises concerning the politicization of the decision process and its appropriateness.

When Jindal first attained office, he expressed some discomfort with the use of the line item veto as a policy-shaping tool. Given the presence of members’ amendments, or state tax dollars steered to specific local projects and uses both inside and outside of local government in a legislator’s district, not so much use but threatened use of it by a governor on them could shape support or opposition for various measures favored or disfavored by him. Nevertheless, early in his term he issued a four-part test that announced what would earn an automatic veto, signaling that legislators shouldn’t bother serving up such requests. Then when he followed through in 2008 with plentiful vetoes the next couple of years have seen few such violating projects go through.

Notably, it’s not that these vetoes during his tenure haven’t been deserved; one could make a great case every single request should have been. In the case of local governments, Jindal made the point early on that by having local governments do the spending themselves improved accountability as citizens could more easily understand where they tax dollars were going and make better judgments on policy. For example, one recent veto axed a police car for Sarepta (population under 1,000), in state Sen. Robert Adley’s district. If the town so badly needs a police car, why must it go to the state? How much would it cost the citizenry for an installment loan on it? And if the municipality is so broke that it can’t even afford a note of a few hundred bucks a month, doesn’t that beg the question about whether a combination of tax increases or reduction in services should be implemented instead of making taxpayers statewide pay for it? In fact, if this item is too expensive for the town to support, why doesn’t it just disband its police force and depend upon Webster Parish sheriff’s deputies for protection?

It’s hard questions like this that the slush funds going out as part of these requests end up getting avoided. Even so, Jindal’s criteria offers a chance to spare some spending, and certainly the criteria are carried out. While the city of Cankton got money vetoed for its walking track, it did get money for “city water and other improvements,” presumably as the latter is either a “state agency need” or has “substantial regional impact.”

But at the same time, judgment calls left discretionary room to treat nearly-identical things separately. Thus, while Sarepta’s police car gets removed, Carencro does get emergency preparedness equipment for its police department and Gonzales “emergency equipment” for its police. Several small-town police departments in northeast Louisiana got $5,000 for no defined purpose.

So, not only does Jindal use political criteria (the test) to create a pool of politically (if not rationally in terms of good policy) acceptable requests based on a broader ideology, he also uses different such criteria to facilitate the exercise of political power in pursuing his governing agenda. According to Adley, in his case retribution (on other requests as well) came because he vigorously sought changes to open records laws affecting the governor’s office not wanted by Jindal.

Yet observe that Adley and his like have a solution if they wish to counter Jindal’s agenda whether it is politically driven provided for in the Louisiana Constitution: they can urge their colleagues to call a veto override session, and then successfully undo the vetoes. It’s all part of a separation of powers, checks and balances arrangement to maximize the chances of good policy-making at the statewide level.

That aspect ensures that this formal process differs from the informal, brass knuckles style utilized by Pres. Barack Obama in his pursuit of policy. Jindal does not call in corporate CEOs to shake them down for $20 billion, nor promise administration jobs to inconvenient candidates, nor push allies on the Legislsture, nor redefine the Constitution to try to impose by fiat. The debate is open and follows formal Constitution processes.

Rather than whine about this, legislators should either call an override session, try to amend the Constitution to take away the gubernatorial line item veto power, or stop the slush funds. Otherwise, it’s just noise that serves no purpose other than self-catharsis and political grandstanding.


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.


Template sows confusion in understanding spill responses

Unfortunately, because federal government competence, particularly in emergency management, was a campaign issue for Democrat Pres. Barack Obama, politics continues to interfere with and distort understanding of the Louisiana oil spill response put in by all levels of government. As Obama’s response has become increasingly political, there has been a major pushback by his supporters and fellow-traveling institutions to impose a template absolving him of the placement of ideology over competence in his administration’s reaction. In turn, this has attempted to create a template attempting to define the state’s and particularly Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s reaction as precisely that. Parsing fact and fiction in the situation helps us to prevent the templates from interfering with a valid understanding of the situation.

One template asserts that Obama has done all that reasonably the federal government could regarding the spill. In fact, in part, Obama dawdled from the start because his brand of politics rests upon the idea that America is a deeply and inherently flawed nation that needs an infusion of transformative liberalism for its repentance. Thus, he had little interest in dealing with this ordinary question of government management – until the escalating crisis began to have political ramifications for his larger ideological agenda.

Indeed, he set the tone in the earliest days of the crisis when repeated offers of foreign assistance were turned down by him as a sop to his union allies. Unlike Pres. George W. Bush who immediately waived the Merchant Marine (Jones) Act in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to allow for such help, Obama refused to allow foreign built, owned, or operated vessels (with the necessary manpower and equipment to start containing the spill) to ply U.S. offshore waters. This postponed not only cleanup but prevention measures as the only ones undertaken were by fewer American workers and ships than could have been deployed and only after training that crucially delayed that response