Governor more powerful than partisan

Special to the Herald-Guide

December 22, 2011 at 10:33 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

By John Maginnis, LaPolitics.com

Newly elected state legislators orienting themselves to the Capitol this month have received a wide, conflicting range of advice on how to do their jobs.

Follow your conservative principles, Sen. David Vitter urged what he called the "brave new world" of Republican majorities in both houses. He exhorted them to pursue "drastic changes" to teacher tenure and to begin "boldly changing" the tax structure by phasing out the income tax on senior citizens.

Follow your colleagues, outgoing Speaker Jim Tucker advised the freshmen, by seeking consensus and compromise within the Legislature and by putting aside hard ideological positions in order "to move the state forward."

Gov. Bobby Jindal kept it simple-and the way it’s always been--by telling new lawmakers: Follow me. Their elders did just that last week, when the last, feeble resistance to the governor’s legislative leadership choices folded.

Nobody expected anything different and, outside of isolated pockets of legislators and some editorial columns, few seemed to mind. The separation of powers and co-equal branches of government are worthy ideals that sometimes, some places, work reasonably well. But not always, and not here. Is that so bad? In day-to-day government, is the over-arching power of the elected governor of Louisiana that much worse than the stultifying extreme partisanship currently on display in Washington, D.C.?

It need not be either, one can argue. A balance between a strong governor and a strong party system can possibly be achieved, but the reality of political power demands that someone be in charge. If not the governor, it would be the majority party, which would lord over the minority. If neither group were clearly in charge, as in Congress, less would get done than even this Legislature manages to do.

The worse of both set-ups, which could happen here, would be to have a strong governor pressing his party in power to realize the "brave new world" that Sen. Vitter has in mind, with Democrats largely eliminated. Gov. Jindal seems not so inclined, according to his words. We will soon see when his ordained legislative leaders, in close collaboration with the governor, begin announcing which lawmakers will chair and serve on what committees.

If the Washington model were followed, Republicans would chair every committee and stack them with clear GOP majorities. But the putative legislative leaders, Sen. John Alario and Rep. Chuck Kleckley, have repeated the governor’s pledge to have committee heads and membership reflect the partisan, racial and gender make-up of the two houses. Make no mistake, Republicans clearly will be in charge of the most important panels, but the Democrats won’t be blanked, if the governor and his leaders keep their words.

They have no reason not to. As much as he craves control, such is easier for Jindal to have by sharing some power with Democrats instead of letting Republicans have it all. For the GOP to be completely in charge, committee assignments logically would flow to those members most faithful to the team instead of to the governor. Inevitably, an intra-party struggle would ensue between the right wing and the mainstream, with the governor caught in between or, worse, pushed aside.

It doesn’t take a Machiavelli to recognize that sharing a bit of power with Democrats and throwing them a few pieces (committee chairs, road projects, appointments) enable the prince to keep the GOP majority a bit off balance and tilted his way. That has helped Jindal to pass budgets in his first term with more spending than fiscal hawks in the GOP House caucus wanted.

True-red conservatives like Sen. Vitter can argue that Jindal is squandering an historic opportunity to re-make Louisiana government according to a Republican agenda to the right of many stronghold GOP states. Yet, the results of the legislative elections show that in a number of targeted districts that have voted Republican in national contests, voters opted to keep their Democratic legislators or to elect new ones, despite being outspent by GOP candidates. A number of Democratic legislators who switched to Republican before the election did so more out of convenience than conviction. Partisanship only means so much in the Legislature, and to Jindal.

Louisiana may have gone through a historic shift in the balance of power between the parties, but it’s the governor who remains in charge, which, given the Washington alternative, could be for the best for now.




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