NC Legislature fails the Sunshine test

Kirk Ross drops a whole salvo of truth bombs:

Communications between legislators and also between legislators and staff in the crafting of laws are among the few documents exempt from the state’s public records laws. The legislature’s requirements for county and municipal government agendas, meeting materials to be available well ahead of time does not apply to its own meetings.

The argument for legislative confidentiality, derived from English common law, is that the legislative process requires this privilege in order for agreements to be worked out. It’s a perfectly valid sounding rationale, but so unlimited and unchecked that it has long been intensely abused. It’s used to hide favors, fund pet projects and anonymously insert language into legislation.

I'm not even sure it sounds valid. Think about it: If lawmakers must have secrecy to agree to something, it naturally follows they're concerned about negative consequences if those communications came to light. Whether it's a strategic thing, where they don't want to give potential opponents to the measure a fair warning, or a personal concern, where they don't want to be associated with a controversial and maybe even unconstitutional act, it almost doesn't matter. They know they're on the wrong side of something, and they're trying to conceal it. Not just from other lawmakers, but from the general public. Which brings us back (once again) to the area of ethics, which should be just as important in holding lawmakers accountable as punishable crimes are. Back to the article, and what Kirk describes as the "black box":

For the past few years that process has been slowly compromised, with fewer and fewer committees meeting and more of the process of crafting bills happening behind the curtain. This is especially true for environmental bills, which have been hammered out in conference committees, whose proceedings and records are cloaked.

The difference in the two processes for arriving at legislation are night and day. The first, the traditional committee process, can be tedious and detail-driven as a case for provisions is built and debated.

On the other hand, a conference committee is a fancy term for black box. Unlike legislation rolling out of committees early in the process, conference reports are negotiated at the end of the process. They are done deals that cannot be amended and arrive on the floor of each chamber for one up-or-down vote. It’s how complex bills with lots of horse trading between the House and Senate get stitched together, a kind of necessary evil of a representative republic. The best example of a conference report is the state budget.

For environmental legislation, conference reports have become more and more the process used for passing lengthy, multi-section bills. Provisions move in and out of the bills in secret, including controversial sections, which would have not passed one or both chambers if not tethered to a bill deemed a must-pass by the leadership for some other reason.

That's when the black box becomes blackmail, something both state and Congressional Republicans have come to rely on. Poison pills used to be an occasional thing, and were mostly done away with in Committee before reaching the floor. Not any more. Aside from the fact that Republican leadership stacks committees so Dems only have about 1/3 of the votes, they don't even trust their own rank-and-file to develop policy, they just shove bills down their throats. Something I tried to explain in this Op-Ed:

You may feel compelled to support the continued use of political data in the drawing of district lines, since your party is the one in power right now. Heck, you may actually owe your particular election victory to those twisted lines. But it’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? What’s given can be taken away. If you take too many steps out of line, speak your mind one too many times, you could find yourself abruptly retired from public service, and very soon forgotten.

Make no mistake, Republicans are just as vulnerable to hinky map-making as Democrats are. You could easily be drawn right out of your district, pushed into a D+15 demographic where no amount of money, no amount of hard work, no amount of reasoning with voters, will get you back to Raleigh. Shut out, ejected from the game, and all those things you wanted to do gone back into the drawer unseen.

This is the reality of allowing that much power to rest in so few hands. This is the reality of owing your allegiance to a political Star Chamber, and not to the people who live in your district, who are the ones you’re supposed to be representing.

Concealing questionable behavior doesn't serve or protect a larger group like a political party, it protects the smaller group of tyrants who actually run the show. Not only does it make a joke of democracy, it actually facilitates corruption. And the voters need to hold elected officials accountable for those practices.

Tags: 

Comments