By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – Since 1976, Mississippi has seen the tenures of seven governors and six lieutenant governors – but only three House speakers have served over the last 35 years. Retiring House Speaker Billy McCoy has held the post for the past eight years. The late legendary Speaker C.B. “Buddie” Newman held the post from 1976–1988, when he was succeeded by Tim Ford, who held from post from 1988 until 2004. McCoy succeeded Ford.
But for Mississippi Republicans, the deeper perspective is this – Republicans in the modern era have been elected governor and lieutenant governor. The state Senate in the modern era achieved a GOP majority. But not since the early 1870s at the height of Reconstruction have Republicans controlled the Mississippi House of Representatives. The last time a Republican held the post of speaker of the Mississippi House, that speaker was John R. Lynch, the esteemed African–American Republican who served in that post from 1872 to 1873 before eventually winning election to Congress.
Democrats have controlled the House Speaker’s post in Mississippi for some 135 years. Beginning with Speaker Walter Sillers in 1944 and continuing until Newman was ousted in the infamous House Revolt of 1987, House speakers ruled with an iron first – rewarding those loyal to the speaker and punishing those who bucked them.
Mississippi’s House speaker is empowered to appoint all committees except the Rules and Management committees. That means that the House speaker appoints all members of the committees that deal with money in state government – principally the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees. In essence, the speaker decides who raises taxes and who spends revenues in bills that will eventually in their final form be voted up or down by rank-and-file House members.
All questions voted upon by the House are “put by” the speaker and the speaker determines – even on voice votes – whether a matter has passed or carried.
Those 1987 House reforms limited the speaker to two four–year terms, restricted the speaker’s committee appointment powers and redistributed power on the “money” committees – Appropriations and Ways and Means. The reforms also reinstituted the speaker pro tempore position and gave the position considerable powers – voting in the speaker’s stead and chairing the Management Committee that allocates office space and staff.
Ford succeeded Newman in 1988. But the 1987 “reforms” eroded and Ford was eventually able to win back the power to succeed himself as speaker and eventually served 16 years in the position that he had in 1987 fought to limit to eight years.
McCoy, a career populist Democrat, is a second–generation House member who was mentored by Newman and who had observed the process as a young man during the reigns of Sillers and Speaker John Junkin. McCoy’s true legislative legacy is that of an unquestioned champion for public education, public health care, transportation and economic development. But McCoy’s legacy gets lost behind the two–way partisanship that marked his time as speaker.
When growing Republican strength in the House reached a point that GOP members saw a chance to oust McCoy and take leadership of the chamber for the first time in 135 years by voting as a bloc and by forging a coalition with sympathetic conservative Democrats, McCoy met what he saw as partisanship with partisanship of his own.
No Republicans were appointed to committee chairmanships. Democrats controlled the money committees. And McCoy was roundly slammed by the GOP as unfair and overly partisan in his management of the House. The decision made McCoy’s tenure as speaker difficult.
But for McCoy, it was a matter of leading the House the way he’d learned to do it in the shadows of Sillers, John Junkin, Newman, and Ford. It will be keenly interesting to see if McCoy’s successor approaches leading the House from a less partisan standpoint.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325–2506 or firstname.lastname@example.org.