Tricks Of The Legislative Trade
The process of legislating typically looks more like C-SPAN and less like ‘House of Cards,’ or other TV dramatizations of Washington. But the rules that govern Congress or the North Carolina General Assembly are both dense and malleable—occasionally you’ll see legislators exploit them in a way that seems made for TV. Below are some recent examples from the North Carolina Senate.
Packaging For Profit
This week, Senator Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, was surprised to see two bills he sponsored come up for a vote. The bills tighten statutory rape and sexual offender laws—typically a bipartisan move. Republicans combined them together, along with legislation to restrict abortions.
Jackson says that gave Democrats a choice: support abortion restrictions or oppose tougher sex offense laws. He voted against his own bills.
“It’s inescapably obvious that this was a deliberate move on their part,” says Jackson. “There is no reason to include these two types of legislation together in one bill unless they’re planting the seeds for future negative campaign ads.”
Even Jackson concedes this kind of packaging is classic.
Amend The Amendment
Since Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, they decide what bills come up for a vote. So, to force them into tough votes, Democrats will offer amendments.
Senator Mike Woodard presented one on last year’s coal ash law; it would have banned utilities from charging customers billions of dollars in clean-up costs.
But, before they could vote on it, Senator Tom Apodaca, the Republican chairman of the Rules Committee, offered his own amendment—to Woodard’s amendment. It deleted every word, and replaced it with instructions to make three word changes to the original bill.
Senators vote on that, and never have to take the tough vote. This, again, is a classic.
“It’s common in North Carolina and it’s common on the federal level, too,” says Paige Worsham, who spent years tracking bills and actions in the General Assembly and now works for the non-partisan North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.
She says legislatures mostly make and self-enforce their own rules. With enough votes, lawmakers can simply suspend them, ignoring the rules entirely.
The Voice Vote
Sometimes they don’t even need the votes. Take committee chairmen.
“They are the final arbiter of the rules,” Worsham says. “Everything that happens within that committee is under the purview of that committee chair.”
Last month, Chairman Bob Rucho moved a solar energy bill through his Finance Committee essentially by himself. Take a listen as he denies calls from Senator Dan Blue for a recorded vote—called a division:
That has cleared the bill for a vote on the Senate floor.
Frozen In Time
Now, all of these examples involve Republicans—because they’re in the majority right now. Five years ago, Worsham says she saw see the same high jinks from Democrats. She remembers one in particular.
It “was to stop the clock at midnight when the budget debate was going on,” says Worsham.
It takes two votes on two separate days to pass a budget, so lawmakers will often vote once before midnight and once after—technically, two separate days. But to make sure the first vote was on day one, Democrats would stop the clock, keeping it before midnight until the vote.
Which just goes to show, with an understanding of the rules and a big enough majority, lawmakers can freeze time itself.