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The SC House Marshmallow Test

An edited version of this article appeared in The State newspaper on 19 September 2014.

Back in the 1960’s, Stanford University studied instant gratification impulses in children. Researchers would measure impulses by offering the child a choice. He could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later if he could just wait 15 minutes. Subsequent research revealed that those children who delayed gratification attained a higher quality of life as adults.

For a different version of the Stanford marshmallow test, consider the unfolding race for Speaker of the House. Within hours of Rep. Bobby Harrell’s indictment, four candidates were running for the position. By the next day, one candidate claimed that he had 70 commitments out of the 124 members – a number disputed by two of the candidates. The fourth candidate had already pledged his supporters to the front-runner. Marshmallows were there to be eaten.

Rep. Harrell’s indictment and suspension as Speaker is an acutely embarrassing and unique event in our history. It should make House members pause to consider reforms that would check the absolute power that led to his leadership failure.

The Speaker’s powers are vast, exceeding that of the Governor. Beyond the power he wields in the House – granted to him by the House Rules – he influences state agencies through the appointments he makes to numerous boards, commissions and committees.

Legislation to reduce the Speaker’s appointment power will require a long bloody fight through the House and Senate. Before that process can begin, the reform of House Rules must take place. These reforms are particular to the House itself. They require no affirmation from the Senate or Governor.

The House Rules concentrates power to the Speaker through his assignment authority. He has absolute authority to assign both bills and members to specific committees. This authority grants him influence over all committee chairman who determine whether bills are debated or buried.

By granting the Speaker control over the House’s intellectual capital, the rules discourage innovation, marginalize the majority of members and blunt election results as new members arrive with populist-driven ideas that are never debated. Instead of ensuring equal representation in the “People’s House,” the rules create an oligarchy.

Having so few members in positions of power explains why widely recognized problems such as road disrepair, outdated tax rules, regulatory overreach and poorly performing state agencies are never solved. Those in power are more interested in keeping power than providing solutions. For the sake of our future, the rules must change.

At a minimum, the rules should limit the number of terms a member can serve as Speaker or as a committee chairman, eliminate leadership PACs and expand the number of standing committees so that the State may benefit from the talents of the broadest number of Representatives as possible.

To their credit, the three candidates pledged to support rules reform. Two issued statements confirming their commitment. The acting Speaker, using his temporary power, even appointed a rules study committee.

Before we declare victory, we should remember that study committees are not House standing committees. They have no authority to introduce legislation. Often, study committees are mere political sounding boards, designed to project the illusion of leadership.

I sincerely hope that the rules study committee serves a more noble purpose. The members will decide that as they debate a broad range of contentious reforms including ways to limit the power of the leader who appointed them – all between now and the House organizational meeting late this year.

During that meeting, the entire House membership will have just three days to consider the committee’s recommendations and adopt the rules for the next two years. With so little time, the House may allow this historic moment to slip by. This must not happen.

During a conversation with one candidate about my lack of commitment in the Speaker’s race, I was asked what I wanted. This question could be taken several ways. I replied that I wanted the rules reformed and nothing else. Since I refused the first marshmallow, I have decided that my constituents deserve more.

We want a candidate with a vision of South Carolina that goes beyond politics as usual. We want a candidate who clearly offers a platform of ideas to solve our problems before appointing a study committee. We want a candidate who leads from the front. A good start would be a public promise to limit his term as Speaker to a time certain regardless of rules reform. Until we see evidence of these leadership qualities, we – as in the 38,000 South Carolinians I represent – remain uncommitted.