In our country, it is OK that people disagree. It is OK for legislators to disagree and hold opinions that I do not find appropriate. That is a greatness of our government construct. What I find far less appealing is when legislators cut corners on parliamentary procedures or do not do the right thing when a conflict of interest appears to gain advantage. This short changes the process and makes us less as a result. This is cheating, no matter how you slice it. I will not be speaking about the greater level of cheating and that is following the preferences of wealthy donors and lobbyists. Nor will I address gerrymandering, which puts in office legislators with strident views and insulates them in future elections. Both of these would require their own posts.
Three times in the past year, I have read about or seen a replay of voice votes being conducted by Committee Chairs in the North Carolina General Assembly and US Congress. Voice votes are when the Chair says all in favor say “yes” and all against say “no.” These votes are usually held when they know the outcome will be unanimous or near unanimous. Yet, on these three occasions the Chair, who was in favor of the action, took such a vote on a contentious matter which would have a close vote.
In two of the cases, it was clear the “no’s” won and several folks in the same political party as the Chair said so, but the Chair was predisposed and heard “yes.” When others cried foul, their complaints were not heeded. In the third vote in an US Congressional Committee, the vote followed a very well done impassioned speech trying to give farmers the right to voice their concerns without repercussion against the industry. The industry won in a voice vote, a vote that sounded fairly close and should have warranted a roll call vote. It should be noted that the two votes noted above in NC favored a long-standing industry position.
To further illustrate, we had a former Speaker of the House in NC who led two unsavory votes. On the first, when a legislator realized she had voted wrong, she approached the Speaker to change her vote. Her request was denied and the vote the Speaker favored passed by one. On the second, the Speaker had a tough budget vote. When it passed midnight, he sent everyone home, but told his party to stay close by. He then recalled legislators to the chamber and had a quorum, but many “no” voters were already headed home to their districts and could not return. The budget passed.*
Not to be outdone, we had a former state legislator, who is on record to have participated in two votes where he had a known conflict of interest. He actually had a financial interest in the decision. He did not recuse himself which would have been the ethical thing to do. This is not restricted to NC, where I have seen footage of a Texas legislator who was voting to protect pay-day lenders, while being a marketing person for a pay-day lender. He was admonished on the floor, but that did not stop him from casting his vote.
I recognize fully we have huge problems with money in politics, voter restrictive laws and gerrymandered districts. The money means that the legislator has to win for their funders. The voter restrictive laws and gerrymandering make it easier for them to win an office and stay there. Yet, the money should not permit blatant cheating like the above examples. In each case I mentioned, an industry who had funded a legislator – fossil fuel industry, poultry processing industry, real estate developer industry and pay-day lending industry – each had sway over this politician or the politician had a personal conflict of interest in a vote.
I want to tie these things together, as when you see legislators cheat with parliamentary procedures, it is far worse than Tom Brady’s “Deflategate” cheating with deflated footballs. Brady cheated and is being punished after the fact and his saying that everyone does it is a child’s answer. The greater crimes are noted above. It is people who have been funded to make votes happen in the favor of the funders. So, we should not say “boys will be boys,” and say everyone does it. We should ask pointedly, why did you cheat like that and who benefits the most? The act of cheating should give you pause about the veracity of the cheater’s position.
* It should be noted we had a previous NC Speaker who accepted a bribe and a previous Governor who got caught up in a real estate boondoggle. So, we have some more tangible cheating issues, but the focus on this post is parliamentary process being short changed to curry favor.