North Carolina’s big government conservatives and the endless legislative session

By: - December 11, 2018 5:00 am

It’s long been understood by those who pay attention to public policy debates that the age-old conservative talking point about the supposed evils of “big government” was always just that – a talking point more than a genuine belief. The truth of the matter is that American conservatives love government in a wide variety of circumstances.

Listen to even the most ardent “libertarian” think tanker wax poetic about the economic benefits provided to North Carolina by federal military spending and any doubts one might harbor in this regard ought to be allayed.

But there are countless other areas in which “small-government” conservatives are more than happy to embrace their supposed nemesis. Last week, Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis issued a joint celebratory announcement in which they took credit for securing “three BUILD Transportation grants totaling more than $60 million for North Carolina.” And, as arch-right-wing Congressman Mark Meadows made clear a few months ago with a plea to the Trump administration, when it comes to assistance with things like storm recovery, conservative anti-government animus quickly goes out the window.

And the list goes on – from reproductive health care (where most conservatives have never met a government regulation they didn’t embrace), to family law (where conservatives have long championed laws that more closely regulate intimate human behavior and relationships), to criminal law (where conservatives have been the chief architects of the nation’s prison-industrial complex).

Here in North Carolina, conservative leaders at the General Assembly who long excoriated government while in the minority, have embraced and centralized power in the majority – perhaps most notably and hypocritically in their repeated efforts to restrict local governments when it comes to things like human rights and gun safety and to dictate education policy to both local school boards and universities.

Interestingly, one area in which the conservative penchant for amassing and centralizing power in Raleigh has been somewhat more gradual and less obvious in recent years involves the legislature itself.

The North Carolina General Assembly is, supposedly, a part-time institution. Lawmakers have long been paid a relatively tiny salary to come to Raleigh for what have traditionally been – especially during the second year of the biennium – relatively brief stays. It wasn’t that long ago that all official legislative business during an election year was concluded in a single six or seven week “short session” that commenced and concluded in the spring.

All of this has changed gradually but dramatically in recent years. Indeed, as the current post-election, lame duck session drags on into the snows of winter, the General Assembly calendar has begun to resemble Congress’s. At last check, lawmakers have been in Raleigh during nine different calendar months in 2018. Only March, April and September have been spared.

The General Assembly has returned to Raleigh with such frequency in recent years that the traditional distinctions between “regular” and “special” sessions have all but evaporated. As a practical matter, lawmakers are now “in session” whenever Republican leaders determine that it is to their political advantage.

The Republican-led shift in how and when the legislature does business has been accompanied by a concomitant expansion in legislative staffs and budgets. Where once the Senate President Pro Tem and House Speaker might have managed their affairs with a tiny cadre of two or three professional assistants, today, Phil Berger and Tim Moore’s teams are much larger and growing (something, one suspects, neither has ever called attention to during a local campaign speech).

Of course, if one looks past the hypocrisy and double standards involved in the conservative overhaul of the General Assembly, there’s no denying that many of the changes make sense. Twenty-first Century North Carolina is a large and fast-growing state of more than 10 million people; it’s only logical that its state legislature would meet more frequently and require more professional staff than it did a few decades ago.

The chief problem – as it so often is with the current legislative powers that be – is the lack of transparency and democracy that’s accompanied the change. Rather than owning the changes they have wrought and seriously leveling with the people about the need for a new kind of General Assembly (even one that, heaven forbid, pays lawmakers a decent annual salary for what is full-time work!), conservative leaders continue to pretend to operate under the old regime. This provides them the twin political benefit of preserving an illusion of small government while keeping rank and file lawmakers relatively powerless, but hides important truths from everyone else.

The bottom line: Democratic government, properly constituted and overseen can be a force for enormous good and, indeed, the best hope for preserving and enhancing human freedom and wellbeing. So long, however, as the people leading the government deny this important truth, the chances for success will be greatly diminished.

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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.