Holding the unemployed hostage

By: - April 15, 2011 12:04 pm

GOP budget ploy is as cynical as it gets

A new standard for gall, chutzpah, brazen cynicism – whatever you want to call it, the latest act by Republican leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly hits a new low.

This past week, in an out-of-the-blue announcement, the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem decreed that they would only allow passage of a mostly technical legislative change to extend the federally-funded unemployment benefits of around 37,000 jobless workers if Governor Perdue agreed ahead of time to the GOP’s proposed state spending levels for fiscal year 2012.

Got that? In order to short-circuit negotiations and force the Governor to agree now to a FY 2012 budget that slashes state spending by 13%, Republican leaders are willing to hold 37,000 families hostage and deny them their modest insurance benefits (on average, around $300 per week). The leaders combined the two unrelated topics into one bill, passed it in near-record time and now plan to deliver it to the Governor tomorrow – the day the unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire.

It’s hard to imagine a more cynical or mean-spirited ploy.

But wait, it gets even worse.

A game-playing power grab

In addition to freely admitting their willingness to jeopardize the wellbeing of 37,000 innocent families in order to blackmail the Governor into pre-agreeing to their budget, Tillis and Berger announced at that their action was driven by a desire to avoid the phenomena of “brinkmanship” or “playing politics.”

This is about as plausible as the claims of a young would-be entrepreneur that he’s going into the business of telemarketing time shares to nursing homes residents in order to protect his ethics.

Members of the capital press corps could barely suppress their smiles at this whopper.

Dictionary.com defines the term “brinkmanship” as “the technique or practice of maneuvering a dangerous situation to the limits of tolerance or safety in order to secure the greatest advantage, especially by creating diplomatic crises.”

In this case, Republicans are clearly precipitating an unnecessary crisis. The budget hasn’t even passed one house of the legislature yet. The current fiscal year doesn’t end until June 30. The notion that we must condition the extension of federal unemployment benefits now on the Governor capitulating six weeks ahead of time on the state budget is utterly ridiculous.

But perhaps even more important than this rank hypocrisy and shameless political brinkmanship is the fact that Republicans are also attempting a power grab that ought to have all North Carolinians up in arms – regardless of their party or ideology.

North Carolina’s state constitution makes the General Assembly and the Governor partners in crafting a state budget. It does not say that the Governor must accept whatever a majority of lawmakers comes up with; it says that the budget cannot become law without the Governor’s approval or a three-fifths legislative majority (the vote necessary to override a gubernatorial veto).

In other words, the constitution calls for negotiation, dialogue and compromise between the two lawmaking branches of government – a budget-crafting process in which there is give and take and in which a responsible middle ground is achieved.

But, of course, in this case, that’s not possible in April because the Republicans are just beginning to put forth the details of their budget proposal. How do you negotiate with a side that hasn’t even spelled out exactly what it wants?

Some, of course, might say that the Republican effort to withhold unemployment benefits is “negotiation” – that the entire legislative session is one big give and take and that everything ought to be “on the table.”

If this is really true, however, what’s the next ploy that will be mere “negotiation?” How far will lawmakers be prepared to go in the future in holding the immediate needs of average North Carolinians hostage in order to get pre-agreement on the budget?

  • Will it be okay for a party in power to make pre-agreement to some version of next year’s budget a prerequisite for it allowing some other essential public service or program to go forward?
  • What’s to stop lawmakers from blocking some other new, mid-session federal initiative – say, for hiring law enforcement officers or improving airport safety or improving vaccinations?
  • Would it be okay to hold up a bill that addressed an immediate health or environmental crisis?

In any honorable and logical world, the answer to such questions ought to be a resounding “no.”

Unfortunately, for North Carolina legislative Republicans, the answer appears to be an unabashed “yes.” Like their comrades in Congress and the Wisconsin legislature, Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly seem to have decided to adopt a “no hold barred,” “ends justify the means” approach to governing that promises to ratchet up the levels of rancor and confrontation in our state to new and disturbing heights.

Going forward

At last report, Governor Perdue stood ready to deny the legislative power grab by vetoing the legislation. The question that this gives rise to, of course, is: what’s next?  Will legislative leaders adhere to their game-playing ploy or come to their senses and allow the benefits to continue apart from the unrelated budget debate?

Let’s hope for the latter development. If not, things could get even uglier on Jones Street very soon.


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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.