SUDDES: Statehouse power struggle continues

Thomas Suddes.
Thomas Suddes.



Sometimes the General Assembly defers to Ohio’s governors. And sometimes Ohio’s governors defer to the General Assembly. For a combination of factors – COVID-19 among the biggest – the General Assembly’s Republican rank-and-file is buffaloing a fellow Republican, Gov. Mike DeWine.

Constitutionally, Ohio’s governorship is among the nation’s more powerful. But during Gov. James A. Rhodes’s second eight years (1975-1982), the parties shared control of the Statehouse. But from then into the mid-1990s, the House’s Democratic speaker, Scioto County’s Vern Riffe, did what he vowed to do when he was sworn in: Reclaimed clout he said the General Assembly had conceded to governors. And did he ever. Likewise, Republican Speaker Jo Ann Davidson (1995 through 2000), was a partner, not a subordinate, to Republican Govs. George V. Voinovich and Bob Taft.

Then General Assembly term-limits – the single best example of Ohio voters self-sabotaging themselves – kicked in fully. For a time, legislators conceded power to governors. Excellent example: When Republican Gov. John R. Kasich – even with five-star GOP conservative William G. Batchelder as speaker – engineered Medicaid expansion courtesy of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the ever-pliable state Controlling Board. Kasich did the right thing. But it’s questionable whether even the steel-toed, take-no-prisoners Kasich could get Medicaid expansion done now.

For that matter, mood, it’s questionable whether the legislature’s leaders, House Speaker Robert Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman, both Lima Republicans, can steer their caucuses the way Riffe, Davidson – and Republican Senate Presidents of the 1980s and ‘90s did.

The reason, one shrewd bystander observed, is as much COVID-19 as anything else: The life-saving precautions required or requested of Ohioans – of Americans generally – are arguably the single biggest governmental intrusions into peoples’ lives since the Second World War’s rationing. And intrusion isn’t what Americans want from government (even though anyone carrying a phone is or can be on someone’s radar screen somewhere). No, Columbus and Washington are supposed to deliver benefits, not burdens, and the people who likely hear all today’s voter gripes in person about COVID-19 are Joan and John Legislator when they’re back home in Tirade Township.

Accordingly, rank and file GOP legislators have fettered DeWine’s anti-pandemic powers and are preparing to fetter them further. That’s understandable if the goal is to shut up hometown loudmouths. It’s inexplicable if the goal is to save Ohioans’ lives. It’s especially inexplicable if, thanks to DeWine’s management, Ohio government, overall, is in good shape despite the pandemic’s economic disruption.

That public restlessness, which translates into irritable blowhard syndrome, is at the root of other controversies, such as the part race played and plays in American life. Not one person in a thousand knows what Critical Race Theory is – but if no one talks about race, its challenges will disappear, right?

Nor will the pandemic disappear if Mike DeWine stops talking about it. Matter of fact, he’s duty bound to talk about it, to protect Ohioans. Still, a lot of Ohioans are tired of hearing about it – and a lot of legislators are tired of hearing from those tired Ohioans.

That’s part, but only part, of why the legislature seems determined to re-configure the Statehouse troika – executive, judicial, legislative – even though Republicans run the whole stable. Legislative-executive tussles run in cycles and right now the cycle is running against the executive.

But attention spans are as short as fuses at today’s Statehouse. It’ll be the judicial branch’s turn next – when the state Supreme Court kills the ludicrously pro-Republican General Assembly districts the GOP-run Redistricting Commission just drew. If you’re partial to self-righteous howling, prepare yourself for a Statehouse treat when the justices kick this year’s gerrymander back to its authors.