For nearly a decade in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the speaker of the House determined what bills passed and which ones didn’t. He ran the House with an iron hand until1987 when members revolted against his dictatorial style and actions. As a result, the House rules were changed to provide for a more open, democratic legislative process. Under newly elected Republican Speaker Philip Gunn, it appears we are returning to the good old days.
In a recent power play, Gunn removed Rep. Linda Whittington, D-Leflore County, from the House Education Committee. Whittington, an expert on early childhood education, had served on that committee since she was elected in 2007.
Speaker Gunn’s reasoning was that he would, in effect, give Whittington a “promotion” to vice-chairman of the Tourism Committee, replacing.
It was not necessary to remove Whittington from the Education Committee to add her to the Tourism Committee. (Whittington currently serves on six committees; a number of the speaker’s allies serve on seven or more. In fact, the chairman of Tourism, Whittington’s new committee, serves on nine committees.)
It is apparent that Gunn made the change because of his position on charter schools. During the last legislative session, charter school legislation was defeated in the Education Committee by a single vote. Rep. Charles Busby, named as Whittington’s replacement, was a sponsor of the bill and obviously a supporter.
By removing Whittington from the committee, Gunn is stacking the deck to assure passage of a charter school bill of his choosing.
Speakers of the House have historically allowed the legislative process to work. Negotiations occur on virtually all bills before they are passed and become law. More often than not, such negotiations result in a better bill because they incorporate various perspectives.
From what I understand, Whittington was not contacted, much less consulted about the change; she was notified by mail after the fact.
I do not believe the speaker’s actions in this matter constitute business as usual. While the removal of Whittington from the Education Committee is technically within the rules, the speaker’s use of his authority to achieve personal legislative goals can be considered an abuse of power given by fellow House members.
Paul A. Tisdale