By Robert Mann
Okay, Democrats and other passionate supporters of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. It’s time to take a deep breath. The election of New Iberia Republican Taylor Barras as Louisiana House speaker is not the end of the world. In fact, it’s the beginning of a new world in Louisiana politics.
Long term, that is not bad for democracy and separation of powers in Louisiana. I mean, it’s 2016. Shouldn’t we try majority rule and co-equal branches of government for a couple of years to see if that might work in the Bayou State? I’m sure if he were alive, James Madison would urge us to give it a shot.
Do I wish the Legislature had mustered the courage to try majority rule in 2008, when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal coerced lawmakers to install his choice for speaker, Republican Rep. Jim Tucker, in spite of a Democratic majority in the House? Of course, I do.
And, I wish the current Republican House majority would acknowledge the fact that what it would never have accepted in 2008 (a speaker from the majority party) is now expected as a natural right.
In this case, Republicans aren’t really wedded to the idea of separation of powers. They are wedded to the idea of power – and, of course, they have every right to be.
If Republican lawmakers were honest, however, they’d admit that they would have never settled for a Democratic majority exerting its right to defy Jindal and elect a Democratic speaker. Imagine the howls of protest and the punishment Jindal and his allies would have meted out to those who defied them. (Well, we don’t have to imagine what happened to those who defied Jindal. It was called “unemployment.”)
That said, I fault Democrats in the House and Senate in 2008 for not asserting their rights. Many were cowards, too easily intimated by the imperial governor. If they had mustered the courage to try majority rule in 2008, the result might have been messy, but does anyone doubt the state would be better off today if Jindal hadn’t had his way in almost every respect the first five years of his governorship?
So, let’s move on and acknowledge that running our business like every other state is probably not a bad idea. Louisiana governors – Republican or Democrat – should never again have as much power as lawmakers and others gave them over the decades. Our unique arrangement (the governor naming the House speaker and Senate president) bred corruption, excess and abuse of power. It gave us corrupt, too-powerful governors like Bobby Jindal and Edwin Edwards.
But there is another reason supporters of John Bel Edwards shouldn’t despair over the election of Barras as speaker. First, if we’re going to have a GOP speaker, and his name isn’t Chris Broadwater, it might as well be someone like Barras. By all accounts, the term-limited Barras is not a right-wing ideologue like Rep. Cameron Henry, once the leading GOP candidate for speaker. A former Democrat, Barras is well liked by his colleagues on both sides. He seems like a decent sort who will try to make the House work as it should.
I don’t get the sense – at least yet – that Barras wants to be only the Republican leader of the House. Rather, I hope I’m right in suspecting that he wants to serve as leader of the entire House.
Of course, I’m well aware that Barras is appointing Republicans to chair committees who will not be friendly to all of Edwards’ legislative proposals. But, guess what? That’s the way it works in almost every legislative body in the United States. If you want democracy, you take it, warts and all.
In fact, let’s admit that not everything Edwards proposes should be enacted as is. At the very least, it won’t hurt that a loyal opposition – I know, I’m naïve for calling them “loyal” – might improve some of the legislation Edwards offers.
More important, however, is the fact that whatever emerges from the Legislature in the special session in February, and in the regular session that begins in March, will be viewed as bipartisan products. Whatever tax increases or budget cuts are imposed will be the product of compromises among Democrats and Republicans. It will not be “the Edwards plan” that the governor and his allies have rammed through a House and a Senate governed by his handpicked leaders. It will probably be a plan approved by a dozen or more Republicans who rule the House and Senate independent of Edwards.
Whatever tax increases or budget cuts are imposed will be the product of compromises among Democrats and Republicans. It will not be “the Edwards plan” that the governor and his allies have rammed through a House and a Senate governed by Edwards’ handpicked leaders. It will probably be a plan approved by a dozen or more Republicans who rule the House and Senate independent of Edwards.
If the Legislature does produce some grand compromise that saves the state (a guy can dream, right?), then Edwards won’t get all the credit. But it’s also true that it will be more difficult for Republicans to credibly attack Edwards for ramming through tax increases when at least a dozen or so Republicans also supported those proposals after the bills cleared committees chaired by Republicans (although it’s possible Barras will appoint a nominal “Democrat,” New Orleans Rep. Neil Abramson, to chair the House Ways and Means Committee).
However, if Edwards and his legislative allies develop a plan that the Legislature rejects and disaster ensues (universities are shuttered, DMV offices are closed and massive layoffs of state workers occur), the Democratic governor can point to the GOP-controlled House and Senate and we’ll know whom to blame for much of the mayhem.
Power sharing is not only right and democratic; in this case, it could be quite useful in driving lawmakers to make government work. Republicans, because they rightly insisted on sharing power, surely know they will also share the blame – maybe even most of it – if the upcoming special and regular sessions end in disaster.
If that happens, Republicans may soon wish that Rep. Walt Leger had won the speakership after all.