About a month ago I brought to your attention statements made by the West Virginia Speaker of the House of Delegates Tim Miley. In an interview with MetroNews, he intimated that the House is mostly bipartisan with regard to voting on and enacting legislation. By implication he appeared to be saying that he himself approaches government in a bipartisan or even nonpartisan way. I told you then that I wasn’t having any of it. However, I never would have dreamed that Miley would have reinforced and proved my point so soon and so profoundly.
One of the first items to emerge from the House at the onset of the current legislative session is HR 2. Authored by Miley, it contains a controversial and highly unusual rules change — unusual in that it represents a power grab that may be unprecedented in our state’s history. It was passed by a margin of 53-47. In the House there are 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans. Do the math and it doesn’t add up to bipartisanship.
The framers of the West Virginia constitution recognized the danger inherent in giving a small group of legislators the power to block potentially important legislation because of their own personal political interests and agendas. That isn’t how representative government is supposed to work. As a result, the state constitution provides for a procedure whereby a bill can be forced out of committee by a majority vote of the House. This acts as a check and balance to mitigate the potential for political power to be too concentrated in the hands of one individual such as the Speaker of the House or the chair of a powerful committee.
This safeguard apparently didn’t sit well with Miley. The House rule sets the rules for the current session. Not that it was easy to force a bill out of committee under any circumstances; however, HR 2 all but ends that possibility entirely. It changes House procedure that has been place for almost 150 years. It redirects bills that come out of committee to the rules committee first, before heading to the floor for a vote. The rules committee can then effectively kill the bill for the remainder of the legislative session regardless of the will of the people.
One wonders why the Speaker would resort to such drastic and desperate measures. They are reminiscent of Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid’s deployment of the “nuclear option” changing the rules in the United States Senate regarding the filibuster. In fact, some are calling Miley the Harry Reid of West Virginia because of HR 2. The leadership of the Democrats in West Virginia appears to be taking its cues from the leadership in Washington.
Taking cues from Washington may not be a pathway to success in the current political environment. Nationally, both major parties are taking it on the chin. According to a recent Gallup poll the most popular party affiliation in America is Independent, coming in at 42 percent on average for 2013. This is the highest measurement by Gallup for the entire 25 years it has been conducting this poll. Conversely, those identifying themselves as Republicans fell to its lowest during that 25 year span to 25 percent. Similarly, those calling themselves Democrats fell to its lowest in 25 years at 31 percent, down from 36 percent in 2008; quite a drop. According to the poll, in the last quarter of 2013 the ranks of those identifying themselves as Independent surged to an astonishing 46 percent, meaning that the trend accelerated as the year progressed.
Reasons for this aren’t hard to find. Approval ratings are at all time lows for President Obama, Obamacare and Congress. The establishments of both parties are systematically alienating their rank and file. Oddly enough, against these national trends, on the state level the GOP is making historic inroads. According to Rasmussen Reports, in 2010 Republicans picked up an unprecedented 20 state chambers. The trend continued in 2012, resulting in Republican control of the Upper Legislative Chambers in 30 states and the Lower Legislative Chambers in 28. There are 29 Republican governors.
On the surface this appears to be a contradiction. However, on the state level the GOP has shown a greater tendency to maintain its independence from Washington. In fact, with greater frequency, state legislatures with GOP majorities are standing up to Washington. In some cases they are even standing up to the Republican establishment in Washington – an intriguing development that bodes well for the future.
As Miley demonstrates, he and his state party show no such tendencies. Perhaps he sees the writing on the wall. His party has maintained control of both chambers in the legislature since 1930. However, in recent times it has been losing ground with regard to registered voters and seats in the Legislature. I suspect that imitating his counterparts in Washington isn’t going to help reverse that trend.
— Elliot Simon writes from