Legislative Caucuses Still Not Public, But Should Be

April 14, 2016

Inside Insight

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Senate Chamber

There’s nothing private about them, but somehow they’re not “public.”

Exactly one year ago, The Nerve’s Rick Brundrett published a story on how legislative caucuses – the General Assembly’s partisan strategizing organizations – somehow get to avoid being designated as public entities. This despite the fact that they meet, rent-free, in public office space and by definition deal with public business. “That alone,” Brundrett wrote, “would classify those caucuses as a ‘public body’ under the state Freedom of Information Act, according to a 2006 formal opinion issued by then-S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, who is now, by virtue of his position as lieutenant governor, the Senate president.”

The four House and Senate caucuses, of course, don’t want to concede that they are public bodies, because if they do, (a) they will have to fulfill Freedom of Information requests, which they absolutely do not want to do, and (b) they won’t be permitted to hold secret meetings, which they’ve long been in the habit of doing.

How interesting, then, that a bill now in the legislature – a House bill with 38 co-sponsors from both parties – assumes caucuses are public bodies in another way. H.3184 is the House’s omnibus ethics reform bill that would, among other things, refashion the Ethics Commission in a way that allows the legislature to appoint some of the Commission’s members.

(Under the bill, the House and Senate ethics committees would no longer investigate ethics violations, the Commission would; and in exchange for this, the House and Senate would appoint some members of the Commission. The change isn’t the reform its supporters claim, however, in part because the Commission would only be allowed to investigate violations, not punish them.)

But here’s the interesting part. Under the bill, four members of the Ethics Commission would be chosen by the four caucuses: one by the Senate majority caucus, one by the Senate minority caucus, one by the House majority caucus, and one by the House minority caucus.

So let’s get this straight. According to the caucuses themselves, they are not public bodies, even though they meet rent-free in public buildings and deal with public matters. And if an impressive array of caucus members have their way, caucuses will be given the power to make appointments to government agencies.

All this, but they would still be allowed to flout the state’s Freedom of Information law? Come on.