Rules rile new minorities

Posted January 26, 2011 9:22 p.m. EST
Updated January 27, 2011 7:50 a.m. EST

— 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.