Senate rules (*yawn*) - The most important part of the process

Posted by: Jason Zacher on Thursday, February 2, 2017

THE TAKEAWAY: The business community welcomes the rule changes and we hope it means more pro-business legislation passed in the coming session.

It's among the most mundane and boring parts of a legislative body, but when you know the rules of our state Senate, you have real control.

The chamber’s 60 pages of rules – and the unknown number of ruling precedents on those rules – are really known by a precious few Senators and staff. Last month, the South Carolina Senate made some significant changes to its rules that promise to streamline the “deliberative” body and hopefully get more legislation through the process. (The House is deemed "the legislative racetrack".)

We advocated for these changes for several years, and we commend the Senate leadership for making these changes quickly so the legislative process moves quicker.

The changes make it much more difficult for a single senator to block legislation. In recent years, some senators have abused the rules to kill ethics reform, the gas tax legislation, and tort reform legislation. In one example, the Trespasser Bill was held up for an entire session, only to have an objection removed and the legislation eventually passed 45-1. The objecting senator ended up voting for the bill.

The rules changes:

  • Eliminate “minority reports” – a mechanism that senators use to block bills even though they have won approval in committee. Senators could still block legislation with a formal "objection." The number of those objections was raised from three to five.  Minority reports required unanimous consent to remove, but with the single-member objections, it will be easier to put pressure on individual members for blocking bills or get an explanation as to why something is blocked.
  • Require high-priority legislation -- so-called “special order” bills – to be debated earlier in the legislative day. This is a major change that was welcomed by most inside and outside the Senate. Special Order bills tend to be the major bills that require extensive debate. Last session, it could be hours before these bills were debated, when many Senators were eager to quit, and many had voted on "less important" legislation that may have been more important to them. By moving Special Order bills up the calendar, it is hoped that the debates may move quicker as Senators have to wait to vote on non-special order bills that their communities care about. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey told The State: "We are going to get to stuff much quicker."
  • Make it easier to end filibusters, where senators opposed to a proposal take the podium and try to talk bills to death. In the past, a filibuster could last for days. The Senate could invoke "cloture" to end the debate, but the filibuster was allowed to continue the next day. The Senate made it easier to end the filibuster by invoking cloture on the bill -- no matter how many days the bill may be debated. This could also mean that the tactic of putting up tons of amendments to slow down a bill will lose some of its luster because it won’t necessarily run out the clock on any given day. Cloture of the bill will resume the next day.
  • Reform the process of rejecting "dilatory" amendments en masse. For example, if you really wanted to kill a bill -- or bargain for a position -- you could file 1,000 amendments to the bill that change individual words or lower a tax by a 1/1,000th of a percent. The chair could rule these amendments out of order, which is the current rule in the House. This tactic isn't used often, but it really grinds debates to a halt. Whether this has any real impact depends on whether the chair enforces it. "Dilatory" can be in the eye of the beholder.

In recent years, some senators have said they were frustrated with the criticism that they were not getting the people's work done. The House typically crows about how much legislation it passes while the Senate sometimes only gets to a few dozen (before the final weeks of session, when things tend to move a little quicker). Part of that is how the Founders designed the legislative process, but part of it has been abuse of the rules. 

The business community welcomes the rule changes and we hope it means more pro-business legislation passed in the coming session. However, the business community has also asked Senators to use these rules to kill anti-business legislation in the past. The true measure of whether this will be effective will be when the Senate digs into a meaty issue this session: roads, pension reform, education funding reform, and workforce development.

Stay tuned…

Jason Zacher is the Vice President of Business Advocacy at the Greenville Chamber & Upstate Chamber Coalition Executive Director. 

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1 comments on "Senate rules (*yawn*) - The most important part of the process"

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Julie Horton on February 8, 2017 at 2:39:27 pm said:
Good explanations, Jason. Thank you.
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