When N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore called the House to order for its scheduled 8:30 a.m. session on Sept. 11, he made a fateful decision bearing not only on a host of the state’s most important policy choices but also on his own character.
For weeks, the top House Republican had listed on daily legislative calendars a possible vote on whether to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget bill, as enacted by the House and Senate in late June.
No vote had yet been taken, for the simple reason that Moore’s caucus wasn’t large enough to ram through the override so long as Democrats made sure to show up in sufficient numbers. To be approved, the override would have to be supported by three-fifths of the House members present and voting – and Democrats, holding 55 of the 120 House seats, could block that if they stuck together.
But the implicit threat was always there, and Moore made no bones about it: He’d spring to take advantage if he caught the Democrats napping.
So here on the evocative morning of 9/11, the speaker saw his chance. Republicans had a sizable contingent on the floor, ready to do business. The Democrats, though, for the most part were missing in action. This was Moore’s chance. Would he take it?
You’re darn tootin’ he would. A motion was made and the vote was called. The tally, at 8:37 a.m., showed 55 Republicans in favor, none opposed, and 15 Democrats opposed, none in favor. (The vote originally was recorded as 55-9 but later was updated.)
The margin of support was well clear of the three-fifths threshold needed for the override. Thirty-nine Democrats who didn’t have excused absences were listed as not voting, versus five Republicans.
To say that Democrats who were in the chamber protested vociferously would be understating by a mile. Rep. Deb Butler of Wilmington notably unleashed a tirade at Moore that won’t soon be forgotten.
Legal but lousy
The ambush, for that’s what it was, appeared to comport with House procedural rules. Still, it was dishonorable, undemocratic and corrosive to effective government in which officials of different views must be able to work together. Here’s why: Democrats claimed that they understood, based on what their own leader thought he’d heard from one of Moore’s top lieutenants, that no votes would be taken that morning and that consequently they didn’t need to be there.
The speaker surely could and should have recognized that his Democratic “colleagues” likely weren’t absent because they had overslept or because they were chowing down at some interest group’s free breakfast.
In fact, there had been a miscommunication for which his own team appears to have been at least partly responsible. The honorable course would have been not to rush to exploit the mistake. It would have been honorable because the people who elect their legislators have a right to decisions made fairly, with members not excluded en masse from casting votes because of a misunderstanding, if that’s what it was, for which any blame likely deserves to be shared.
House Democrats even gave Moore and Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis – whose conversation the previous day with Minority Leader Darren Jackson seems to have been at the root of the trouble – a chance to walk back their stunt. Moore put Jackson’s afternoon motion to rescind the morning’s action to a vote, but it failed as Lewis urged fellow Republicans to let the override stand.
He might as well have told Jackson, “Sorry, bud. A soldier who trips on the battlefield can’t expect mercy from someone trying to kill him – and neither can the House’s top Democrat when Republicans have him in their sights. So much for collegiality and trust – what counts is that we get our way!”
Path to avoid
The budget bill vetoed by Cooper, House Bill 966, aims to keep North Carolina going down the same ill-chosen path of tax cuts weighted to benefit the wealthy, inadequate spending on public education and a disregard for the health needs of thousands of economically insecure residents.
The governor has tried in particular to use his leverage to bring about an expansion of Medicaid to help those residents, but Republican legislative chiefs have refused to make even a compromise on Medicaid part of any budget deal. Those are the biggest policy stakes as the veto override drama shifts to the Senate.
The Senate GOP leader, President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said his chamber’s focus for the balance of the week would remain on redistricting – following the recent court order that election district maps be redrawn to eliminate extreme partisan gerrymandering. The deadline for finishing the remap is Sept. 18.
Republicans hold a 29-21 edge in the Senate, so if all members are present and voting, only one Democrat breaking ranks could furnish the three-fifths margin to override. A few senators might feel as if their arms are being twisted out of their sockets – in both directions. Cooper’s reasons for issuing his veto will come into even brighter focus, and Democrats will be called to show their loyalty. At least Senate rules seem to require advance notice of any override tally. In any case, don’t expect Berger to engineer a vote unless he’s convinced his side will succeed.
For all that, Berger and his lieutenants may find themselves wondering if the House’s machinations have put them in an awkward spot. If the blowback – i.e., public outrage at House Republicans’ tactics – becomes strong enough, GOP senators might begin to worry about being tarred with the same brush of disdain. They’d become accomplices in an especially outrageous abuse of legislative procedure and protocol – certainly nothing to brag about and likely fodder for future campaign opponents.
The throwing of sharp partisan elbows is, for better or worse, rather a tradition in the General Assembly, where folks in charge typically haven’t been shy about exercising the power they hold. But to the extent the legislature’s leaders take seriously their roles as stewards of their branch of government, they will seek to tamp down devious maneuvering that offends any decent notion of fair play.
They’ll ask themselves whether the people’s business can properly be done amidst a climate polluted by resentment and distrust. And yes, when push comes to shove on the budget bill and whether to complete the veto override, senators would do well to de-escalate the conflict they’ve now inherited and let the veto stand.
They would be conceding that there has to be a better way forward in the search for common ground to resolve honest differences about the budget. That’s how they could advance the public interest rather than insist on scoring another victory tainted by out-of-control partisanship and pride.