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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Don't rig the rules

Gary Robertson of the Associated Press has written that for only the second time since 1901, the Senate of the North Carolina General Assembly will be led by a Lieutenant Governor who belongs to the minority party in the Senate. Two months hence, Democrat Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton will convene a Senate of 31 Republicans and 19 Democrats. That's not merely a Republican majority; it's veto-proof under the Constitution of North Carolina.

Through most of the 20th century, the Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina wielded considerable power in the Senate. He (of course) appointed Senators to committees, selected the committee chairmen, assigned bills to committees, and so forth.

So it went until 1988, when Republican Jim Gardner was elected Lieutenant Governor. In response, the Democratic majority in the Senate amended the rules of the Senate and stripped the Lieutenant Governor of almost all authority. Per the Constitution, the Lieutenant Governor still presides over the Senate and may cast a vote in the event of a tie, but all other powers were reassigned to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate -- who, of course, was a Democrat. The office of Lieutenant Governor became virtually ceremonial.

Elections this month have changed things! In North Carolina, the entire General Assembly is chosen every two years -- but Lieutenant Governor Dalton is just halfway through his four-year term. If the Democrats had not reacted to Jim Gardner's election in 1988 so vindictively, Dalton would still have powers that Democrats need to protect their agenda.

The General Assembly is not currently in session. In theory Democratic Governor Bev Perdue could quickly call a special lame-duck session of the General Assembly to revise the rules of the Senate and restore power to the Lieutenant Governor. In practice, such a move would ignite a firestorm and almost certainly lead to Republicans' becoming both Governor and Lieutenant Governor in 2012. Thus the Democrats have no opportunity to un-do what they did in 1989.

The lesson: be careful about rigging the rules of a body politic to meet a specific circumstance. You may find yourself at the sharp end of the same spear someday.