BOBBY HARRISON: Power and numbers sometimes link in Capitol politics

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The story goes that in the 1970s a fellow House member walked up to C.B. “Buddie” Newman at the Sun ‘n’ Sand Hotel or some other legislative haunt and informed him he had his support for speaker.
Newman slowly looked up and replied, “I don’t need it.”
Whether the story is true or part of the political myth that surrounds larger-than-life politicians such as Newman may never be known. But the story rings true – not just for Newman, but for the exercise of power politics.
When it comes to speaker politics in particular, people who get on board early tend to get better committee assignments. People who do not get on board tend to get next to nothing.
In the coming days, perhaps later this week, new Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, will make his appointments. In many respects, Gunn, who is beginning his third term in the House, is a clean slate. Little is known about him by the state media, so the committee assignments, already perhaps the most important task of a presiding officer, will be dissected and discussed at length to try to ascertain what Gunn’s actions say about him.
New Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves received generally high marks for the bipartisan nature of the Senate committee assignments he made last week. The Republican Reeves appointed 16 Democrats as committee chairs.
Reeves’ predecessor as lieutenant governor – new Gov. Phil Bryant – appointed a few more Democrats to chair committees in 2008. And Bryant also appointed Hob Bryan, D-Amory, to one of the chamber’s key committees – Public Health and Welfare. Reeves appointed Bryan as Judiciary B chair and Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, as Highways and Transportation chair. Those are important committees, but not as influential as Public Health.
By the same token, when Bryant took office in January 2008, Democrats held a majority in the Senate. It made sense for Bryant to share power since theoretically Democrats could have stripped Bryant of most his Senate powers – including the ability to make committee assignments.
Reeves enters office with Republicans having a commanding 31-21 majority. He, in essence, faces no threat of Democrats stripping his power.
It also should be pointed that there are 39 (that’s right, not a typo) committee chairs in the 52-member Senate. Some of the committees are relatively trivial in nature – such as the State Library Committee. Unless Republicans chair more than one committee or unless some committees are merged, it would be impossible for Reeves to make all assignments without appointing some Democrats as chairs.
Gunn, on the other hand, could appoint only fellow Republicans, who have a 64-58 advantage in the House. The House has essentially an equivalent number of committees as the Senate.
In 2008, former Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, received considerable criticism for appointing only Democrats as committee chairs. Some have cited McCoy’s actions as reason for Gunn to do the same and appoint only Republicans.
At the time, McCoy was looking at committee assignments less in partisan terms and more like Newman and past speakers had done. He was rewarding his supporters.
Granted, McCoy might have created some good will by appointing some Republican chairs, but he would have upset supporters who made tough votes in what was the closest and most contentious speaker’s race in modern history.
In other words, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
Gunn, on the other hand, was elected unanimously. He was not opposed – just as McCoy was not in 2004.
That year, McCoy appointed nine of the chamber’s then-46 Republicans to committee chairs, plus a larger number of Republican as vice chairs to committees where second in command has real significance, such as Appropriations, Ways and Means and Education.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.