© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

Republican Lawmakers' Power Games Continue Long Tradition

Michael Bitzer
Michael Bitzer

Once upon a time, a political party was faced with the loss of a branch of government to its political nemesis. It came following a rancorous and bitter election, which saw the sitting incumbent defeated in his bid for re-election. Before the opposition was sworn in, however, the lame-duck party in power decided to use the rules of the game of politics, and its majority status, to ensure its presence within the structure of government, all to the dismay and abhorrence of the incoming opposition party.

The party in power decided not only to create, but fill, various vacancies within the government before the opposition assumed control of the government. In doing so, the party in power ensured its place within the new government, even with its new minority status in the legislative branch and the loss of the chief executive’s position.

The party in power even went as far as to appoint and confirm individuals the night before the swearing in of the new chief executive, all based on the law the outgoing party had passed in their lame-duck session just five days before the opposition assumed control of the government. In fact, the law reduced the number of seats on the highest court in the government, preventing the opposition party from potentially having any seats to fill.

The opposition was infuriated by the work of the lame-duck party in power. They claimed that political patronage was being instilled in the final days of the party in power, and vowed retribution.

Sound familiar? Well, this story isn’t about North Carolina in 2016, but rather the United States in 1801. When the first truly contested (and bitter) presidential election between Federalist incumbent John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson concluded with Jefferson’s win over Adams (along with control of Congress by Jefferson’s party), the outgoing Federalists attempted to pack the government, especially the judiciary, with its own party faithful to hamper the incoming opposition party.

Most scholars know this story as the foundation for the case of Marbury vs. Madison, which led to the legal concept of judicial review by the Supreme Court of the United States.

But beyond the legal consequences of the case, the political ramifications demonstrate that political parties going out of power will use any methods or means, hopefully within the confines of constitutional boundaries, to ensure their political survival, or simply to ‘tweak the noses’ of the incoming opposition.

Within the past week, the charges of “coup” have been made against the Republican super-majority in the North Carolina General Assembly regarding their actions in a ‘fourth special session.’ Democrats charged that Republicans were taking aim at their incoming governor, Roy Cooper, with attempts to “sharply curtail” the chief executive’s authority and power. Some have even gone into hyperbolic descriptions of “attacking democracy.”

Political power games, such as this, aren’t anything new, in either the state of North Carolina or the nation as whole. One of the deans of political reporting in North Carolina, Rob Christensen, observed that Democrats were just as guilty to pull political shenanigans when they controlled the legislative branch, which is the supreme branch of government in the state.

While many believe that ‘coup’ describes the actions of North Carolina Republicans in their special session, it wasn’t a “violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government,” but rather a “notable or successful stroke or move” on behalf of a party that, unlike the Federalists in 1801, still retain considerable power of their own when Cooper takes office, and can exercise that power, now more enhanced, before the Democratic governor is inaugurated.

Do the Democrats see this as political spite by Republicans for losing the governor’s mansion? Certainly, just like the Democratic-Republicans viewed the Federalists’ moves in 1801.

Do the Republicans see this as what’s good for past political goose is good for the current gander, with over 100 years of similar moves by Democratic dominance of North Carolina from the end of Reconstruction into the late 20th century? Definitely.

Are both parties guilty of using political power to their advantage when they have it? Absolutely.

Of course, when you have absolute power, well, you know the saying.

Dr. Michael Bitzer is an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, where he also serves as the 2011-2012 Swink Professor for Excellence in Classroom Teaching and the chair of the department of history & politics. A native South Carolinian, he holds graduate degrees in both history and political science from Clemson University and The University of Georgiaââ