Weekly Briefing

Governing is a grown-up thing

Unemployment flap shows that legislative leaders remain mired in political adolescence

There is an understandable desire in the American public for bold and tough-talking political leaders. In a world of great complexity, politicians who can speak forcefully while distilling complex debates down to understandable concepts are often a very valuable commodity.

There is a difference, however, between talking tough and actually governing. It’s one thing to make ideological speeches and take ideological positions, it’s quite another to govern; to craft thoughtful, quality budgets and make useful laws that people can live by.

If ever there was proof that these two skills frequently diverge, it’s the current leadership of the North Carolina General Assembly.

See, for example, the travails of House Speaker Thom “divide and conquer” Tillis, whose recent efforts to invent himself as a statewide conservative leader may have stoked right-wing political fires, but seem sure to compromise his ability to serve effectively as Speaker of the entire House of Representatives.

Unfortunately, Tillis’ recent fiasco is far from the first example in which the current team of conservative legislative leaders has fallen short in the governing department. In the aftermath of the 2011 legislative session, North Carolinais littered with half-baked new laws and budget items that may have provided great fodder for the troops at Tea Party gatherings and Republican fundraisers but that have left the state much worse off than before.

Here’s a classic example that’s yet to get much public attention: The General Assembly’s ridiculous string of decisions regarding the state’s unemployment insurance system.

Wielding an ideological wrecking ball

Unemployment insurance (UI) is a bedrock public safety net program. It is a combined federal and state program with a simple, core mission: to help keep workers afloat who have become unemployed through no fault of their own. Of course, UI does much more than that. As a practical matter, UI is often all that stands between many families and communities and a true, economic meltdown. During the current downturn, UI has helped stave off genuine economic depression by pumping billions of critically important dollars into the economy.

Unfortunately, UI doesn’t fit well into the right-wing ideological playbook. In the Darwinian, “everyone for him or herself,” worldview, UI benefits are for slackers and ne’er do wells. According to the ideological right, UI is just another “socialistic” government program that discourages workers from planning and saving for hard times.

This brings us to the 2011 legislative session in which conservative legislative leaders, fueled by years of such propaganda, attempted to take a meat cleaver to UI.

During the waning days of session, fresh off a month-plus long standoff in which they had held the benefits of unemployed workers hostage as a budget negotiating tactic, conservative leaders rammed through a bill that would have inflicted significant new damage to the state’s UI system. Under the bill, several damaging procedural restrictions would have been imposed on worker eligibility for benefits. As a practical matter, the changes would have made it much easier for workers to be denied benefits that they had earned.

Unfortunately for the sponsors, the changes ran afoul of federal law. (As noted, UI is a joint state-federal program in which much of the funding comes fromWashington– especially in recent years as state UI funds have run enormous, recession-induced deficits.)

At the time, officials at the state agency that administers UI – the Employment Security Commission – told lawmakers that the bill would violate federal laws with whichNorth Carolinawas obligated to comply. Legislators, however, ignored the warning and passed the bill anyway.

Three days after the bill was sent to Governor Perdue, the U.S. Department of Labor weighed in again – informing the Commission and the Governor that the bill would putNorth Carolinaout of compliance with federal law and thereby render it ineligible for the federal assistance that has kept the system itself afloat without large new tax hikes on employers.

Accordingly, Governor Perdue vetoed the bill on June 30.

Amazingly, however, conservative lawmakers ignored these objections as well and engineered a veto override on July 26.

At the close of a rather remarkably irresponsible statement on the legislature’s action, House Speaker Thom Tillis said the following:

“…the ESC and the Governor still have the power to address any concerns by the US Department of Labor. This is a pro-business piece of legislation that provides much-needed clarity for businesses and their employees when facing the prospect of unemployment.”

Even in the cynical world of state politics, this was and is a jaw-dropping position.

As a practical matter, here is what the Speaker said:

“Yeah, we know that this bill is in violation of federal law. But to make any changes or compromises would force us to acknowledge that we’re just putting the state through this costly exercise for rhetorical and ideological purposes. Therefore, even though we’re sworn to uphold the law and know that were doing cannot possibly stand as written, we’re gonna’ do it anyway and leave it to the Governor and her aides to clean up the mess.”

Got that? The Speaker and his associates deliberately enacted a state law that they knew was in violation of federal law.

What is this, 1963?

Cleaning up after the children

Fortunately, state law gives Governor Perdue authority to play the role of grown up in the affair and last week, Lynn Holmes, the Perdue-appointed chair of the Employment Security Commission was forced to act. Holmes sent a letter to legislative leaders in which she explained her action. This is from an October 12 letter to Tillis:

“After consultation with, and direction from, the Governor—and pursuant to N.C.G.S. 96-19(b)—I am suspending certain provisions of Session Law 2011-40 (senate Bill 532) because those provisions do not comply with federal law. Absent this suspension, these provisions will cause taxes to go up onNorth Carolinaemployers. As you may recall, I had asked the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) to review SB 532 before the General Assembly passed it and before Governor Perdue vetoed it. On both occasions, the USDOL raised concerns about this bill; those concerns were shared with you and your members. The General Assembly overrode Governor Perdue’s veto and now USDOL has confirmed that these provisions are non-compliant.”

By all indications,North Carolinawill continue to comply with federal law and avoid the sanctions that might have occurred.

But seriously, is this really how conservative leaders want to operate our state? And is this how Tillis and his pal, Senate Leader Phil Berger, really want to be thought of – as modern versions of Orville Faubus or George Wallace thumbing their noses at Washington?

Let’s hope not.

Let’s hope instead that in that in the aftermath of both this mess and “divide and conquer-gate,” conservative legislative leaders have an epiphany about what really goes into governing. Maybe, after a bit of reflection, Tillis, Berger and their colleagues will acknowledge – at least to themselves – that real, honest-to-goodness governing is about more than Xeroxing fact sheets from ALEC and scoring political victories.

Let’s hope.

But don’t hold your breath.

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