Face it: Louisiana has a lousy way of picking legislative leaders.
While the administrative and legislative branches are nominally co-equal branches of government, the actual balance of power is so stacked in favor of Louisiana governors that they routinely anoint their own allies to head the House and Senate.
This isn’t written down anywhere, yet it’s a time-honored tradition. Chalk it up to the fact that the governor has all sorts of institutional tools with which to reward or punish lawmakers, from the line-item veto to control over which capital outlay projects get funded. Chalk it up, too, to the Legislature’s nonpartisan nature; because it’s not set up along party lines, a different organizing principle has developed over time, one that gives key assignments to those on the governor’s most-favored list regardless of party and leaves those who stray on the outside looking in.
Every four years, a smattering of lawmakers puff up their chests and declare that this time, things will be different. Yet somehow, they never are.
It’s a terrible system, one that undermines the very notion of an independent Legislature. That is, until you compare it with the alternative.
Which brings us to the contest to become speaker of Louisiana’s House.
State Rep. Walt Leger, of New Orleans, the speaker pro tem and the choice of incoming Gov. John Bel Edwards, says he has the votes, even though Leger, like Edwards, is a Democrat and the majority of House members are Republican. This could well be true, given historical precedent, Leger’s popularity with his colleagues and the likelihood that a dozen or so Republicans could be tempted to cross the aisle.
But the Republican caucus and its supporters are putting up a fight, arguing that the majority party should choose one of its own.
The GOP candidate is state Rep. Cameron Henry, a leader in the chamber’s “fiscal hawks” coalition who backed Edwards’ vanquished opponent, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, for governor.
Henry is also a protégé of U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, who tried to establish stronger party coherence during his time in the Louisiana Legislature and who now holds the No. 3 post on Congress’ GOP leadership team. This group is doing its best to keep its members in line, with the help of an outside grass-roots conservative coalition.
The Edwards/Leger camp points out that Democrats still held a majority back when Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal was elected, and Jindal got his pick for the top post, GOP state Rep. Jim Tucker (ironically, the Democratic Senate president, Joel Chaisson, wound up with a closer relationship to the governor). Henry supporters counter that the spoils of victory should go to the party that won the Legislature, not the separate election for governor.
Frankly, both sides have a point.
So perhaps the key question is, which result would lead to more productive government? Or, to put it another way, does Louisiana’s system work better than the Congress, not to mention other states’ more partisan legislatures, many of which have followed Washington’s dysfunctional lead?
Voters nationwide handily reelected Democratic President Barack Obama, then two years later turned around and gave control of both houses of Congress to Republicans. Here in Louisiana, this year’s electorate sent Republican majorities to the Legislature but chose a Democratic governor by a gaping, 12 percentage point margin. Both camps can read the result as vindication and a sign that the public is on its side.
But what does that mean the voters really want? A partisan standstill or compromise and common ground?
That’s an oversimplified question and one that’s hard to definitively answer. But the more hopeful view, and the one that tilts the scale to Edwards’ and Leger’s side, is that they want the governor and Legislature to team up and solve problems, to fix the structural budget deficit, to figure out how to pay for higher education, to take the help that the federal government is offering for Medicaid expansion and other programs rather than rejecting it out of ideological purity.
That could happen should Henry win the election too, but introducing congressional-style partisanship to the Legislature increases the possibility of congressional-style gridlock. It empowers those who see Edwards’ victory in conservative Louisiana as an anomaly, who might be tempted to set him up for failure in the hope that he’d lose to a Republican in four years.
I think the 56 percent of voters who chose Edwards, including many who bucked their own usual party preferences, want to see him succeed. Louisiana’s way is far from perfect, but it offers the best chance for that to happen.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.