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GOP to blame for possible loss of House leadership

While Louisiana Republicans can blame the state’s peculiar political culture, their elected officials deserve opprobrium as well for allowing a real possibility that, despite a clear majority in the House of Representatives, this chamber may elect a leadership controlled by Democrats.

Last week, jockeying for the speakership of the House commenced, with Democrat state Rep. Walt Leger proclaiming himself in the lead. Alleging that he has at this time enough votes to secure the post, this means that since Republicans hold 61 seats in the 105-member body, assuming that the two independents voted his way he would need nine GOP defectors to forsake their party’s choice for speaker. In part this might be due to the influence of Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards, the incoming governor, following the informal norm that allows that official some discretion over determining chamber leadership.

It doesn’t appear that House Republicans have settled on a candidate at this time, but a meeting of the caucus produced a document of 51 signatures pledging a vote for a Republican, implying that as many as 10 possibly could defect, making Leger’s possibility of claiming the top chamber spot a potential reality. In all likelihood, these ten include those who have given public support in one form or fashion to Edwards during and after the campaign – state Reps. Bryan Adams, Chris Broadwater, Thomas Carmody, Kenny Havard, Joe Lopinto, and Rob Shadoin – and maybe others who often have bucked the party leadership on certain issues aligning with Edwards, such as state Rep. Rogers Pope, hardly distinguishable from Edwards on education issues.

Defenders of the legitimacy of this arrangement, wherein the minority party that has 19 fewer seats than the majority yet picks the speaker who will have great influence in appointing committee chairman and members as well as in scheduling legislation for committee assignment and debate, point to the state’s past for validation of this arrangement deviant from every other state in the union. They argue that historically minority party members have run committees and even had majorities on them. Most recently, five of the Senate’s 17 committees and five of the House’s 16 committees had Democrats as chairmen, and five in the Senate and three in the House even had Democrat majorities.

Note, however, that the proportions for each chamber’s committee chairmanships and majorities roughly matched the overall partisan balances in each chamber, so in the House anything less favorable to the GOP than the current arrangement would violate this norm. And while defenders of Leger’s/Edwards’ power grab in the chamber can point to the precedent of former Speaker Jim Tucker who at the commencement of his post came from the then-minority Republicans, at the time the two parties had just about the same number of seats and the GOP would pull ahead before his term expired, making this nothing like the tremendous gap existing at present.

In other words, having a Democrat now as House speaker creates a new standard of permitting minority rule in contravention of the democratically-expressed preferences of the Louisiana people. And if that comes to pass (much can happen in the elbow-throwing period between elections and the organizational session of the Legislature), Republicans must look at themselves to fault.

It goes beyond tactical political mistakes to the GOP’s countenancing of a system that could produce such an outcome. Within its own boundaries, it could have rearranged to committee system to appear like almost every other states’ and Congress: all committees headed by the majority party, all committees with a majority party majority in proportion to chamber membership (some Louisiana committees have severe imbalances towards one party, including the minority Democrats). This would have strengthened party discipline, especially if dissenting members found themselves sanctioned for more than the occasional bucking of the party’s preferences.

But outside the institution a more substantial reform could have produced more members committed to principles rather than to political convenience – changing the electoral system from the present nonpartisan blanket primary to a closed primary. This elevates the importance of issues in elections and reduces personalistic kinds of considerations that have operated as the hallmark of Louisiana politics, thereby increasing the accountability and responsibility of government to the people by making less obscure the connections of issue preferences to candidate and elected official rhetoric and behavior.

The closed primary system, because it produces an official party nominee required for placement on a general election ballot, forces greater attention on issue preferences and reinforces allegiance to a party that pursues those preferences. Without the discipline imposed by voters who already psychologically have sworn support to a party’s agenda by their label choice in registering to vote, the blanket primary system encourages too many freelancers ready to sell out for political gain and/or who are insufficiently committed to ideas voters think they cast ballots in favor of.

Yet not only did a Republican governor and Legislature not pursue making all elections closed primaries in the state, they got rid of after just four years closed primaries instituted for all federal elections. No doubt some of the very Republicans-In-Name-Only now supporting Edwards obstructed any such action, because they may not have won reelection otherwise.

Regardless, a lack of proper understanding of the environment led too few Republicans to realize how going to closed primaries could help the party, much less improve governance in the state by giving whichever party won elections more incentives to follow more clearly voters’ issue preferences that duly emanated from their electoral choices, Failure in this regard may end up costing them the attenuation of their policy-making power for the next four years.

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