Rules rile new minorities

Posted January 26, 2011
Updated January 27, 2011

— Every session, the NC House and Senate write their own rulebooks. They deal with everything from how long lawmakers can talk to whether they can eat lunch during session, or when they can use a laptop.

But the real story is in the procedural rules – the ways lawmakers can use parliamentary procedures to object to, appeal, table, redirect or otherwise hold up legislation they don’t like or don’t want to have to vote on.

The party in power is the one that sets the rules, of course. And the Republicans, having been on the losing end of rulemaking for many years, are taking different tacks in writing their own.

On the House side, newly elected Speaker Thom Tillis said the rule changes approved Wednesday will open up debate and increase efficiency. For example, House members can only file 10 statewide bills this year. As Tillis explained, “10 bills times 120 of us is 1,200.” That’s a lot of paper and a lot of labor to track the progress of those proposals.

House Democrats said they felt the changes would limit debate. But Tillis said the new rules would make the House more open. The House measure is temporary; the House Rules committee is expected to approve a permanent version within the next two weeks or so.

On the Senate side, where the GOP hasn’t been in a position to write the rules in more than century, the new leadership is clearly playing for keeps. The permanent rules approved today get rid of “pairing,” an old Senate tradition.

To pair, a senator who can’t be present for a key vote finds someone who will be present and who, while voting the other way, is willing to have his or her vote cancelled out. The present Senator announces the “pair” with the absent member, and neither vote is recorded on the tally.

Pairing has been a boon to those senators who’ve had to miss sessions for health or family reasons, but who still wanted to use their vote to affect the outcome of a major issue -- like the lottery, where the practice played a central role. But new Pro Tem Phil Berger says pairing allows members to avoid accountability for their votes on controversial issues. That’s because pairs, though entered into the Senate journal, don’t show up in official vote counts.

Another big change on the Senate side is the creation of a new officer – the “Senate Parliamentarian.” This member, probably Rules Chair Tom Apodaca or Judiciary 1 Chair Pete Brunstetter, will be the referee for rules protests on the Senate floor. Apodaca insists the goal is to make the legislative process “flow” more easily.

But the Senate already has such a referee. According to the NC Constitution, the Lieutenant Governor oversees the Senate’s proceedings and makes calls on rules appeals. This year, however, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, a Democrat, is overseeing a Republican majority. It’s a quandary of historical proportions.

Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein tried to remove the provision. ”This is not good process,” he argued, pointing out that a senator acting as rules referee would have a conflict of interest if he or she had a connection to the measure in question. Stein said the Lieutenant Governor should be the presiding officer because he or she can’t offer bills or debate them. But Stein’s amendment failed on party lines.

Dalton called the change a “partisan power play,” but insisted it wouldn’t affect his relationship with Senate Republicans. “I understand politics,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t think this is a positive factor for working together, but it’s not going to be something that will prevent us from working together in the future.”

Berger said that he’s hoping to let GOP Senators take turns running the chamber when Dalton is absent, much like Congress does. He said the parliamentarian’s role will be to help them manage the chamber efficiently and correctly.



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  • junkyard Jan 27, 2011

    Worland, "Other than spending money we don't have, do the Dems have any other skill than whining?"

    Maybe you could teach them how to lie about the price of oil?

  • james27613 Jan 27, 2011

    Why pair votes, why not let them vote by paper ballot if they are not able to vote in person for medical or other valid reasons?

  • usnret Jan 27, 2011

    Let's see if the republicans can do more than try to increase their hold on power. In other words, can they actually legislate or are they just going to run for office in the next election? It appears that their only true goal is to put "big business" puppets into office.

  • asdad Jan 27, 2011

    It simply ensures that the republicans will get what they want at any and all expense. Limiting bills to 10 isn't good governance. Having one of your own run the show on rules isn't good governance. Berger needs to try actually working on making the senate work....quit fanning the flames, November is over, Fetzer is out, the other loser, I mean former Rep., Hayes is in, NC is set up for two years of sucky disappointment.

  • jamzwilkins Jan 27, 2011

    So democrats are upset at the pairings change? You mean making one MORE accountable for a vote and actually be recorded FOR the vote is something worthy of complaint? Democrats, if you really want to be taken seriously, come up with some budget money-saving ideas.

  • oustobama12 Jan 27, 2011

    USNRET, you should be happy. We had the worst legislature money could buy before this past November. Be of good cheer! The White House should look better after the 2012 election, too. That will not only be good for the state, but the country as well!

  • myowngrandpaw Jan 27, 2011

    'Pairing has been a boon to those senators who’ve had to miss sessions for health or family reasons'.
    If you believe it was for "health" or "family" reasons, I have some beach property in Oklahoma I would like to sell you! Don't laugh, with global warming the seas will rise to Norman!

  • usnret Jan 27, 2011

    Quit gloating, repubs, and get something done.(you promised!)

  • Karmageddon Jan 27, 2011

    There was no problems doing that when they were the majority....what changed?.......oh yeah

  • Worland Jan 27, 2011

    Other than spending money we don't have, do the Dems have any other skill than whining?