SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Legislators May Be Facing a Bed of Coals
One of the real surprises for people first visiting a state legislature is how bills aren't simply put up for debate, amended and then voted on.
Often people who've never seen a legislature in action assume that, as institutions of democracy, they operate in the most democratic fashion, with all ideas considered and majorities of both parties deciding whether those ideas become laws.
That's not how it works.
In the North Carolina General Assembly, most bills filed end up in the wastebasket. Legislative majorities, and their leaders, control the flow of the legislation. And if you're not in the majority party, the chances of getting anything approved other than a local bill affecting just your own district can be slim.
A while back, a fellow who's a once- or twice-a-year visitor to the Legislative Building told me that he was surprised that I hadn't written about how a committee chairman had killed a piece of legislation that he had been pushing.
Well, I had written about the issue, fisheries, and predicted that the bill wouldn't go anywhere. The process -- much to his chagrin -- isn't very different for a lot of bills.
The differences in the assumptions and the reality are most evident on the chamber floors. People are often surprised to see that few pieces of legislation ever make it to the House and Senate floors without the outcome being known.
Very few bills actually suffer defeat on a chamber floor. A lot of nose-counting goes on in legislatures, and legislative leaders don't like holding their fellow party members' feet to the fire unless they believe a bill is going to pass.
It's an important aspect of the legislative process to keep in mind as Gov. Beverly Perdue pursues a new type of state budget reform.
Perdue, a longtime legislator herself, essentially wants to rearrange the process, laying down a hot bed of coals before legislators.
To try to take politics out of the process, that's what Congress did when closing and consolidating military bases around the country. It created BRAC, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, to recommend base closures, and then required itself to vote yes or no on the recommendations, with no changes.
Perdue has borrowed the procedure and the acronym. She recently announcing the nine-member Budget Reform and Accountability Commission. The commission's job is to come up with recommendations to the legislature designed to save taxpayer money, and eliminate government waste and duplication.
Perdue would then like legislators to take an up-or-down vote on the recommendations, with no changes.
Just one problem: Legislators haven't agreed to do any such thing, and many see the step as ceding legislative power, giving it to the executive branch.
Perdue, though, recognizes that, unless you can force elected representatives to make a public choice, they sometimes won't act in the broader interest.
Still, putting some heat to their feet to ever get them into that position may prove difficult.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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