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Strong governor possible only with Legislature's cooperation

It’s not that the governor of Louisiana is so powerful, it’s that the Louisiana Legislature, shaped by the personalistic political culture of the state, is so willing to abdicate its considerable power – especially when democratic checks and balances come into play.

Some observers had a chance to muse about the fate, the apparent death in the Legislature, of a proposed constitutional amendment this session, which would have tripled fees for private vehicle registrations and dedicated the additional money over the next six years to fund a potpourri of roads projects. Not that the legislation was good to begin with – it’s never a good idea to write such specific things in the Constitution leaving no room for changing needs and there have been suggested better plans to more flexibly get more money to roads construction that don’t require any fee increases – but regardless of its worth the episode serves as a example of how the personalistic political culture of the state continues to shape its policy outcomes.

This political culture emphasizes the role of the individual policy-maker in the aggregation, articulation, and pursuit of policy interests, as opposed to collective institutions such as political parties, interest groups, and social movements. This transforms the purpose of government from something that is to impartially manage social conflict to allow individuals the maximal opportunity to pursue their own ends in societal interactions, and instead makes it an active participant to be used by the strongest coalition to steer resources to its members from non-members.
For example, traditionally Louisiana politicians have placed great primacy upon, and have cited by them as justification for their elections, their abilities to extract resources from state government for favored constituencies, a transactional process known as populism.

Ingrained as it has become in Louisiana political culture, it conditions not just interactions between politicians and constituents, but also among politicians. Thus, the governor is seen by many as the ultimate dispenser of resources and imposes this superstructure on his relationships with individual legislators. Farther on down the food chain, local interests additionally see their representatives and senators as having similar but a smaller amount of such power.

Note that the reason these powers get exercised is not from any formal grant of constitutional authority, but in the leveraging of those kinds of power given the parameters of the political culture. For example, a governor can use his line-item veto power to excise individual spending items tied to a specific legislator’s request to transfer state resources to a specific constituency as a tool to shape that legislator’s behavior. But most notable is that he may leverage in this way only with the sufferance of the Legislature shaped by that political culture.

Formally speaking, in a constitutional sense at any time the Louisiana Legislature could completely overpower the governor. There’s not a bill he can stop if they choose to override his veto, not an expense he can block for the same reason. It can organize the executive branch anyway it chooses (subject to the constitutional imperative of the presence of certain constitutional offices), get rid of any regulatory authority in it, and propose any constitutional amendment it likes regardless of a governor’s feelings.

But it chooses not to do any of this, because it likes the current system where citizen-supplicants must approach its members for the bestowment of favored treatment. It, or at least enough legislators to control it, likes having government organized in a way to extract wealth from the citizenry for its redistribution to the chosen few, with the remainder spread around enough to keep popular passions from becoming too inflamed against this system. It wants to have a governor with the bulk of power to do it, because when the majority that controls it, or individual legislators themselves, are aligned politically with the governor, they optimize their abilities to bring home bacon. However, they have to accept the bad with the good so when the opposite conditions rule, the must pay the price of acquiescing to this system.

To repeat, nothing about this cannot be changed instantly. If the Legislature, or at least enough (two-thirds in each chamber) of its members, thought these fees increases should go in front of voters, they can do it. If the governor then threatened retaliation by vetoing favored bills or appropriations, they could pass what they wanted anyway and override every single one of those actually cast. All it takes is the will to do it.

However, the will is absent among too many in the Legislature. Yet in part this reluctance also is a product of a basic dynamic of a system of separated powers in a democracy. When the governor declared his opposition to this measure, despite having no veto power over it, this signaled that he could make an issue of this with a particularly ripe opportunity available courtesy of his reelection campaign this fall. A situation like this would deter approving legislators from moving forward with it only if they knew the state’s voters were ripe for mobilization against the amendment, or that supporters would lose this battle of ideas. In short, one branch of government getting checked by another in union with the governed – as designed by the system.

At best, it is imprecise to argue that Louisiana’s government creates a governor of great power. Rather, a political culture that encourages fealty to political leaders instead of institutions and ideas molds an environment presenting additional opportunities for a governor to flex powers using those institutions and ideas. No Constitutional changes, as one clueless legislator suggested as a response, can alter this milieu. So if legislators lament these episodes, they need only look at themselves to blame for allowing them to happen by their continued cooperation in this system’s maintenance.

1 comment:

Louisiana's Libertarian said...

Jeff, your column nails it right on the head. The Governor of Louisiana is not a very strong office in relation to many other states. In fact, one researcher indexed each governor's institutional power, and Louisiana's always ranks between 33rd and 38th most powerful. Obviously, not very powerful at all.

There are some historical factors that strengthen the governor's position, but not enough to stand up against a resolute Legislature. Unfortunately, many of our legislators do not have the principles of civic duty needed to stand up for the true state's interest.