Senate reform and debate fall short

Senate reform and debate fall short

- in Fitzsimon File


The General Assembly is winding toward a pause, not a close, with the Senate preparing to leave town for at up to two weeks, holding only skeletal sessions while the House continues to wrestle with pending legislation. Senate leaders decided to pass lobbying and ethics reform before they took their break and pass it they did Wednesday afternoon, though it’s debatable that the term reform still applies.

The bill is just a shell of the legislation that came from the House Select Committee on Ethics and Government Reform and falls well short of proposals for the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying Reform. The bill does not include a truly independent ethics commission that oversees both the legislative and executive branches of government and it also lacks a meaningful ban on gifts from lobbyists.

It also does not include a prohibition on lobbyists raising money for the lawmakers they are paid to influence, arguably the most important single provision in the reform proposals. Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger offered an amendment on the Senate floor to put the fundraising ban back into the bill, but Senator Dan Clodfelter rose to claim that the amendment was unconstitutional, ignoring the opinion of former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr and the fact that several states currently have the lobbyists fundraising ban.

No one challenged Clodfelter’s assertion, but no one had the chance. He used a parliamentary maneuver not only to prevent a vote on Berger’s amendment, but to cut off debate about it.
Clodfelter instead offered a substitute amendment to prohibit lobbyists from bundling contributions and delivering them to a legislator, a good idea, but far short of what is needed.

It means that lobbyists can still raise unlimited amounts of money for lawmakers, and still have fundraisers in their homes for the lawmakers they seek to curry favor with. After Clodfelter’s amendment was approved, Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand cut off debate on the bill itself, preventing further amendments or discussion.

Apparently Senate leaders would rather not have an open and full debate on legislation ultimately designed to make the legislative process more open and honest. The bill now goes to a conference committee, where negotiators will work out the differences between the House and Senate plans. 

Senator Clodfelter told the Senate what he told the Judiciary Committee this week, that he wished the public had been able to see the committee debating lobbying and ethics reform. Clodfelter said the debate restored his confidence in the General Assembly.

Many folks who were watching had a different view, listening to Senators complain that the bill was even before them and ridicule the bills that the House passed after months of debate in the Select Committee and the Judiciary Committee and on the House floor.

Folks would have seen an amendment to ban fundraising for lobbyists fail on a voice vote and then have two Senators claim they couldn’t remember how they voted when a reporter asked them after the meeting. They would have seen a carefully orchestrated and controlled Senate debate, designed to avoid a recorded vote on the fundraising ban and cut short before every lawmaker had his or her say or a chance to offer more amendments.

The House and Senate will give final approval to a reform package, probably sometime next week. But things unless change dramatically, lobbyists who can raise campaign cash will still have more influence than those who can’t. And it all will have been decided in a debate as flawed as the reforms themselves. 

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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