When lawmakers gather Jan. 7 for the 118th session of the Indiana General Assembly, Democratic legislators could just as well stay home.
For the first time in more than 40 years, the GOP will hold the governor’s office and supermajorities in the House and Senate. House Republicans picked up nine seats on Election Day, giving their caucus a 69-31 advantage. Senate Republicans maintained their lopsided 37-13 edge, giving both chambers the two-thirds majority needed to reach a quorum, meaning Democrats can no longer halt action by walking out.
While it might sound like a refreshing change from Washington gridlock or political stall tactics, the supermajority session isn’t likely to be good for anyone, even Republicans.
The checks and balances that serve to temper overreaching legislation, to avoid unanticipated consequences and to weed out poorly conceived legislation were mostly stripped by the last election. And while GOP lawmakers might be delighted to pass laws unencumbered by partisan roadblocks, they are likely to find as much disagreement over principles and priorities within their own party as they ever found on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Look no further than Gov.-elect Mike Pence’s income tax-cut proposal for a preview of the rocky road ahead. When the Republican congressman offered it up in the heat of the election season, Republican legislators weren’t enthusiastic.
After two years of not having enough money at the state level to fund various levels of education, I would personally like to look at keeping our taxes level and being able to fund several programs we have talked about in education, including partial funding of preschool, Rep. Kathy Heuer, R-Columbia City, said last August.
Even last week, when an encouraging revenue forecast bolstered Pence’s proposal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee voiced caution.
We’ll have to see how the numbers work out, said Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville. I’m still very concerned about how tight things are.
If Republicans can’t agree on a fiscal issue, just wait until the social issues arise and the GOP caucus itself is split into factions.
I think the leadership is going to have their work cut out for them, observed Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana. It’s like a herd you can hardly handle.
She said redistricting made the election results no surprise. Her organization has long pushed for an independent commission to draw federal and state electoral maps.
As long as you have incumbent politicians in charge of drawing maps, they really can’t help themselves, Vaughn said. The Republicans were certainly more cagey about it than the Democrats were in 2001, but we asked for political breakdowns and they said they didn’t have them. We’re not that naïve. They may not have to work that hard to draw (Republican-leaning) districts, but certainly there were districts that changed to their advantage.
Twenty-year veteran Win Moses, a former Fort Wayne mayor, was among the Democrats whose district boundaries shifted to take in large numbers of GOP voters. He lost to first-time candidate Martin Carbaugh.
Demographic changes are likely to erode the GOP electoral advantage long before the next redistricting occurs. In the meantime, the Republican supermajorities are free to have their way with favored legislation.
It’s like a freight train with no brakes, Vaughn said. It could create a lot of havoc before it crashes, so it’s incumbent on the leadership to control these majorities.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said after the election that he knows Democrats will be looking for Republicans to overreach and that there is a very steady hand at the wheel.
But at the Bingham Greenebaum Doll Legislative Conference this month, House Democratic Floor Leader Linda Lawson expressed doubt that divisive issues would be off-limits.
We would like to see a moratorium on the social issues, she said. It’s so divisive that nothing else seems to get done. We keep talking about the same things over and over and over again, and it creates problems on both sides of the aisle.
Creationism instruction would be one of those things. Auburn Republican Dennis Kruse, who leads the Senate Education Committee, introduced a bill last year and created a firestorm of public protest. Nonetheless, President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, allowed the bill to pass out of the Senate. He could do so because Bosma was prepared to kill it in the House with a procedural move.
It seemed to me not to be a productive discussion, particularly in light that there is a United States Supreme Court case that appears to be on point that very similar language is counter to the Constitution, Bosma said at the time.
But avoiding nonproductive discussions will be tougher this year.
We have 37 members in our caucus and, obviously, 37 minds, said Sen. James Merritt, majority leader in the Senate. We actually go where the caucus takes us. This won’t be from the top down.
Bosma said the proposed constitutional amendment resolution that would ban same-sex marriage will inevitably be filed.
Whether it’s the issue of abortion regulation, the definition of marriage – I think these bills will be introduced, and it will be up to committee chairmen and leadership to decide if it’s appropriate to discuss, he said. Nothing is wrong with talking about these issues that are important to Hoosiers. It will be my job to be sure that procedures are followed that both sides conduct themselves in a professional manner. That will be my goal.
Last session’s Democratic walkout, spurred primarily by the right-to-work fight, clearly angered some voters but succeeded in drawing attention to the issue. This session, House Republicans have the numbers to proceed without the minority party.
There is nothing Democrats can do to stop them, said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW. Lacking the power to do anything but file bills sought by their constituents, Democrats will be reduced to a watchdog role.
Downs predicted that Democrats will have a newfound interest in airing the most extreme causes pushed by Republicans. They’ll do so by calling on GOP leadership to give far-right legislation full debate – the better to paint opponents as out of step come November 2014.
Common Cause’s Vaughn said changes in Democratic leadership – Minority Leader Patrick Bauer was ousted by the caucus before the election – should allow for a new focus.
(Democrats) need to start talking about issues that are core to how the process works – ethics, campaign finance, open government, she said, noting that a statement by new House Minority Leader Scott Pelath criticizing the Indiana Economic Development Corp. was a smart move after an Indianapolis Star investigation of the agency’s suspicious entanglement with a trade consultant.
Pelath’s response was right on target, Vaughn said. It would make sense for Democrats to focus on how this state is run – which is poorly.
Organization Day did not bode well for higher ethical standards in the legislature itself, she noted.
We’re already getting off to a start where we have all these glaring conflicts, Vaughn said, pointing to former Rep. Matt Whetstone’s appointment as House parliamentarian.
Bosma is in this pretend world where Whetstone’s job is not a conflict. The guy is still employed by (a lobbying firm) and he’s going to be paid $12,000 a month (by the state) during the session, Vaughn said. There is no way his decision-making isn’t impacted. Those are pretty shocking ethical alarms that have gone off, and the leadership is actually excusing them.
Hard to hold onto
If Republican leaders are acting cautiously, they have good reason. IPFW’s Downs noted that supermajorities are difficult to win and difficult to keep. During the 1940s, Republicans controlled both chambers for six years with supermajorities. In 1948, Democrats won control of the House.
The Goldwater debacle of 1964, according to The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, gave Democrats control of the legislature for the first time in 28 years. They held a 35-15 majority in the Senate and 78-22 majority in the House. But they clashed with a member of their own party – Gov. Roger Branigan.
Branigan was the governor who brought into focus the powerful relationship of the executive to that part of our traditional system of checks and balances, wrote author Justin Walsh.
Likewise, Republicans struggled with their last period of supermajority control, when centrist Gov. Edgar Whitcomb found himself at odds with a majority of his own party in both Houses, according to Walsh.
The late Ed Ziegner, known as the dean of the Statehouse press corps, observed that the 1969-70 session was one of the least productive of the era in terms of number of bills approved, despite the overwhelming GOP majorities. The party lost 19 House seats and six Senate seats in November 1970. In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Democrats took control of the Indiana House.
If the upcoming session looks like the start of a long and unhindered ride for Republicans, history suggests otherwise.