Though I wasn’t too thrilled with Mel Gibson’s character’s reluctance to enter the American Revolution at the beginning of the hit 2000 movie The Patriot, he nevertheless made a great point. In asserting that King George III’s tyranny could be repeated by an elected legislature he stated “why would I trade one tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,000 tyrants one mile away? An elected legislature can trample a man’s rights as easily as a king can.” It turns out that the fictional Benjamin Martin of Charleston, in my favorite movie, prophetically predicted our state’s current legislative predicament. If Mr. Martin were real, we might say that he had in mind the South Carolina Senate.
The purpose of legitimate government in a free society is to protect the life, liberty and property of all people. Inasmuch, our national and state constitutions constructed a system of government that limits the ability of legislatures, presidents and governors to trample our rights. This system of checks and balances at the national and state level is designed to deflect concentrations of power, which our founders rightly understood to be the makings of monarchial government by the elite.
That’s why it’s so disturbing that the current rules of the South Carolina Senate are set up to vest far too much unilateral power in the hands of well-placed senators. There’s a peculiar practice in our state senate wherein certain senators, on select committees and subcommittees, can single-handedly kill important legislation by attaching to it a “minority report.” A minority report is, effectively, the legislative equivalent of a dissenting opinion in a high court ruling, in that it expresses the concern of those that disagree with a particular bill, even if it’s only one who disagrees. Now, this would be fine, except that any dissenting opinion in a committee or subcommittee will place important legislation at the bottom of the SC Senate calendar; it kills a bill by ensuring that it never sees the light of day in a full vote on the senate floor.
Even bills that expressly protect the life, liberty and property of the people of South Carolina have been killed by this practice. I recall several years ago, during the Administration of Governor Mark Sanford, there was an important bill making its way through the legislature that would crack down on drunk driving. This common sense reform was, effectively, a “three strikes and you’re out” rule, which would significantly punish repeat drunken driver offenders. Unfortunately, a liberal Senator from the lowcountry used senate rules, namely the minority report, to kill this reform. Did I mention that the senator was also a trial lawyer, who made significant money representing people in drunken driving cases?
The rules of the SC Senate violate the spirit of our state’s constitution, as they trample on the concept of the separation of powers. For an individual senator to kill legislation that would protect millions of South Carolinians, just to protect his or her own pocketbook, is appalling. These same rules have the effect of giving senators in the legislature the effective power of the veto, which belongs to the executive (the governor), which is a violation of republican government.
It is beyond time for South Carolina conservatives to rally for real reform in Columbia. In order to protect the life, liberty and property of all our people, we must act now to restore the balance of power in our state capital. This must be accomplished by shedding light on the rules of the Senate, which allow senators to unilaterally rule our state government.