Weekly Briefing

An abiding contempt for government and governing

The guiding philosophy of legislative leaders comes into focus

It’s a question that many political observers and insiders have debated for some time now: What is the policy philosophy that underlies the legislative leadership of House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger? Is it a “pro-business” slant that ultimately drives decisions or is it the social conservatism of Amendment One, the mislabeled “Woman’s Right to Know Act” and the repeal of the Racial Justice Act?

Recently, events have helped to bring some clarity to the discussion and here is what we’ve learned: It is neither.

What each man is, in fact, is an anti-government conservative. Not only do these men want to restrain government, each harbors a deep and abiding contempt for government and, indeed, for the institution of democratic governance itself.

Strange claims about employee severance packages

For Tillis, perhaps the best recent example of this philosophy in action came to the fore last Friday when the Speaker agreed to a brief interview on what he obviously expected to be a friendly forum – the radio show of conservative Raleigh talk show host, Bill LuMaye.

Unfortunately for Tillis, LuMaye had not received the memo about tossing only soft balls and actually proceeded to ask him some direct questions about his controversial decision to pay large severance packages to two staffers (one his roommate) who resigned after having been discovered to have been involved in romantic relationships with lobbyists.

It was at this point that Tillis offered some quite remarkable statements to justify his actions.

Here is a partial transcript:

LuMaye: “The severance pay; can I ask you Mr. Speaker, why did you feel the need to reward the bad behavior with taxpayer money? Because. It’s really troubling me.”

Tillis: Well, you know Bill, something that hasn’t been reported but is, in fact true. If I, if, I did not fire them, they resigned. And they resigned, uh, as an agreement, or as part of an agreement to move them along. If I had fired them, they would have been qualified for 99 days, or 99 weeks, of unemployment. What they got were four.

When pressed by a clearly unsatisfied LuMaye, Tillis said the following:

“I want to make sure you get the point; the way the worker’s compensation system works in North Carolina today, they would have qualified for 99 weeks of unemployment if I had fired them.”

Back to school for the Speaker

Setting aside his obvious and inaccurate conflation of unemployment insurance with the entirely different and separate system of workers’ compensation, Tillis’ statements are truly bizarre in multiple ways.

First of all, there’s the little matter of truth. Put simply, Tillis’ claim is complete baloney.

Workers fired for good cause in North Carolina are most assuredly NOT eligible for unemployment insurance. Voluntary resignation is another bar to eligibility. That’s why only around 30% of unemployed North Carolina workers actually receive any benefits. There is simply no way that Charles Thomas or Amy Hobbs could conceivably have qualified for unemployment benefits – whichever way they ultimately departed their jobs in the Speaker’s office – assuming honesty by all involved parties.

And even if they somehow were able to manufacture eligibility, the “99 weeks” claim is also completely inaccurate. Unless Congress acts soon, the current absolute maximum of 79 weeks (a number that only applies to people who can’t find work and that is hardly likely to be the case for the House Speaker’s former aides) will soon decline to around 30. Indeed, Thomas had already taken steps to set up a new consulting business before he left Tillis’ office and the house he shared with the Speaker.

How a leader in such a powerful position – a person with lawyers and advisors and who is actually advancing a bill to restrict unemployment insurance benefits for workers even further –could make such a blatantly inaccurate, misleading and downright dishonest set of public statements on such an important and controversial matter almost defies explanation. That he would spend thousands of public dollars based on such inaccurate information is even more amazing.

How could this happen? Is he just making stuff up?

The only possible explanation that makes any sense is that Tillis has become such a captive of conservative propaganda and mythmaking that he actually believes it. The man has such contempt for public institutions like the unemployment insurance system, that he’s willing to believe utterly absurd and illogical myths about them. What’s more, he has such disdain for the actual process of governance that he’s willing to run the state based upon these nonsensical myths. It is a truly disheartening (even frightening) situation.

Berger too?

Sadly, Tillis is not alone in his detachment from reality and contempt for government. Recently, his Senate counterpart has been walking a disturbingly similar path. Among the latest examples:

  1. Berger’s willingness to advance an anti-government, anti-knowledge stink bomb of a bill that dismisses the findings of a well-respected state appointed panel of scientists on sea-level rise.
  2. The Senate’s unprecedented exercise in “speed budgeting” in which three Berger appointees met behind closed doors over a weekend and literally wrote the 2013 state budget without any public (or even subcommittee) input.
  3. Berger’s public admission this week that the Senate would simply fail to meet its constitutional obligation to consider Governor Perdue’s appointments to the State Board of Education because: a) “she is a lame duck” and b) the Republicans simply do not want to.

As with Tillis, each of these acts bespeaks a cynical and almost breathtaking contempt for knowledge, process and the traditional mores of governance.

In response, of course, Tillis, Berger and their apologists have claimed repeatedly that past Democratic legislatures have played it fast and loose with procedure. “Don’t blame us,” they say, “the precedent for doing things this way was set years ago.”

This claim, however, doesn’t wash.

While some Democrats certainly have taken inappropriate liberties at times in the past, current leaders would be hard-pressed to point to a comparable spate of ends-justify-the-means, anti-government behavior – especially in recent years. And what if Democratic leaders did abuse legislative processes in, say, the 1980’s? Does this give GOP lawmakers license to do similar or worse things in 2012? How far back should this “rule” apply?

More to the point, even if there were comparable abuses to point to, that wouldn’t make the present-day behaviors right. Tillis and Berger came to office on a platform of reform and transparency.

Going forward

Sadly, if anything, the pace of cynical and anti-government deeds in recent weeks seems to be picking up. As with so many relative newcomers to political power throughout history, it’s as if, now that the two leaders have both crossed over to the dark side, they’ve gone “all in.”

Let’s hope this is not the case. Assuming both men return for another term in office in 2013, perhaps changing political circumstances (like the presence of a new, non-lame duck Governor) will help alter the legislative environment.

Perhaps.

Another of Tillis’ statements during the LuMaye interview, however, may call such hopes into question. The Speaker noted that he is already talking to GOP gubernatorial nominee Pat McCrory “almost every day.”