Two years ago, North Carolina legislators made national news when they tacked provisions imposing restrictions on abortion clinics onto a motorcycle safety bill without notifying the public or fellow senators. That came just days after members of the House added similar language limiting abortions to a bill banning the recognition of Islamic Sharia law in family courts – on 5 p.m. before the July 4th holiday.
Just last week, Sen. Jeff Jackson saw two of his unrelated bills tacked onto another controversial abortion bill that would extend the mandatory waiting period for abortions to 72 hours.
One of Jackson’s bills, SB418, would make statutory rape laws applicable in cases where victims are 15 years old and younger (currently the laws apply to only to 13-, 14- and 15-year olds). The other bill, SB590, would add sex offenders convicted on the federal level or in other states to those who aren’t allowed in the places children play, like children’s museums, playgrounds, and child care centers. These are good but unrelated bills, right?
I don’t know for sure when this practice of stringing unrelated bills together started. Not surprisingly, there are not a lot of records; I don’t think anyone has penned the official history of lousy lawmaking yet.
What I do know is that the practice is not new – and it’s not limited to abortion. Some bills, especially regulatory reform bills, have been used so often as vehicles for tenuously related policy that they are often filed mostly blank, just a placeholder for later. This session, language freezing North Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio standards, or REPs, has been searching for a legislative train to board, hopping onto several other bills. Back in the days of Democratic control, legislators would strip out entire bills and replace them with something completely different.
Both houses of the General Assembly include sections in their rules requiring that amendments be relevant to the bill at hand. There’s no definitive test of relatedness, but the National Conference of State Legislatures provides a recommended checklist. The first item is: “Does the amendment deal with a different topic or subject?”
But, the reality is, the rules are made – and enforced – by those in power. The party in charge has enormous power to decide how bills are heard, which committees they are referred to, and which amendments are added. Certain powerful legislators and those in the leadership also have enormous sway in which bills come to the floor and what gets a vote. If you are unsure about that, just take a look at the way Sen. Bob Rucho handled a controversial voice vote in committee last week.
Sometimes a pet project or bill is attached to a popular bill that is moving quickly. Sometimes a controversial provision is tucked away in a less controversial bill. Sometimes a “poison pill” provision is added to a bill to kill it.
Sometimes bills with strong support – like Jackson’s – are added to legislation that has far less support (like the abortion wait-period). A legislator who opposes limiting abortion rights is stuck in a catch-22; no one wants to run for re-election facing a TV ad saying they voted against protecting young children from rape or sexual predators.
Always, it’s about politics.
It’s easy to fall into the thinking that this is the way the game is played – the victor gets the spoils. But that kind of thinking is what gets us into trouble. These kinds of maneuvers leave voters feeling confused and distrustful. The issues being dealt with are very real and impact lives in our state.
We shouldn’t accept that this is the way politics works. We should demand more. We should educate ourselves, our friends and our family about the issues at play; we should not be swept up by 30-second commercials.
We should vote. That’s the way the game is played.
Sara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal, and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog.