The case for gridlock or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the veto

The case for gridlock or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the veto

When Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly reconvene next week, they’ll return to a colder Raleigh.

Not an inhospitable place, mind you. Those golden doors into the House and Senate chambers in Raleigh still open for them, these benefactors of a grimly gerrymandered map that’s past due for its day in a North Carolina courtroom. And their ruthlessly efficient leadership will hold all of the keys, maintaining a throttle grip on the legislative committees that can advance or shun prospective bills at will.

Yet their silver bullet, their Cooper-proof majority, built to withstand the governor’s veto power, is a right-wing nostalgia piece these days, buried beneath what amounts to an avalanche of left-leaning votes in November.

For the first time in his term, Gov. Cooper, a Democrat once exiled to the bully pulpit if little else, will hold something over this legislature’s head.

When longtime North Carolina reporter Kirk Ross tweeted on the morning of Dec. 22 that, per state law, the governor could officially stow any new bills until the supermajority had left office, effectively shuttering any future chicanery, it seemed a crossing of the void.

“This might seem like a small point considering that the world is burning,” Ross mused. “But it significantly changes the dynamic for public policy making in our state.”

True, and it couldn’t come soon enough for a state exhausted by an unchecked legislative branch. Republicans would no longer be able to pass some of their more noxious bills without peeling off a handful of Democrats to support a veto override.

Perhaps that explains the anxious hand-wringing these days over what Cooper will do with his newfound power. Will he opt for compromise, the N.C. Insider’s Colin Campbell wondered just days ago, or will he opt for gridlock?

Perhaps that’s a question best put to GOP legislative leaders, who, for the better part of a decade, have ruled seemingly without the capacity for reflection. Regardless of the new dynamic in Raleigh, what Cooper will or won’t do in 2019 still matters far less than those who hold corner offices in the legislative building, those who ultimately control what, if anything, is to become law in 2019 and 2020.

For better or worse, this state knows what to expect of Roy Cooper, a moderate Democrat from the state’s rural eastern reaches who’s spent his nascent rise grappling – inside and outside of a courtroom – with his nemeses in the state’s Republican party.

The governor’s predilection for compromise already won him a repeal of the legislature’s odious HB2 in 2017, even if its unpalatable giveaways to social conservatives – a temporary moratorium on local anti-discrimination ordinances – angered many on the left flank of the Democratic Party.

His queasy acceptance of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a pipe dream turned reality for powerful energy interests, earned him his lashes from those who rightfully worry about the environmental and social justice sacrifices North Carolina will make along the way.

And in his willingness to accept last year’s Republican “fix” to a public school class-size crisis – one in which GOP-engineered budget constraints left North Carolina school systems panicking – the Democratic governor again showed a willingness to bend, if not break on his policy goals.

Cooper promised not to veto that deal, even with its “poison pills” seizing control of a $58 million environmental mitigation fund for the pipeline and a hyper-partisan face-lift for the state’s elections board.

No, when it comes to compromise, the ball is not in Cooper’s court. Not even close. The crucial question of this upcoming session – one that promises biting battles over Medicaid, school infrastructure, and the budget – is how much, if any, the leadership of the General Assembly is willing to deal.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an instance in which the legislative leadership – barring tremendous public pressure or a court order – hashed out an exchange with their counterparts in the Democratic Party. Indeed, they’ve found very little incentive to do so, retrofitting a historically moderate state into an ultra-conservative Bacchanalia along the way with a staggering deluge of far-right agenda items.

The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser wrote last month that President Trump’s political calculus in Washington seems to hinge on the fire hose of news, most if it bad, gushing from his administration. All the while, Trump endures with a noxious but buoyant persona, one that seems able to bob perennially atop a sea of waste. What point is there in losing sleep over this week’s dizzying headlines if they’re only to be swallowed by next week’s?

In North Carolina, there’s the same weariness for progressives and moderates.

Perhaps the North Carolina legislature has not descended to the same mind-bending depths as the Trump administration in recent years, but they’ve been far more successful in advancing their policy goals, sowing and harvesting a conservative revolution that’s far outstripped virtually all other Republican-controlled states in the country.

In their pursuit of a sprawling, come-hell-or-high-water school choice market, in their desperate quest to create one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws, in their ruthlessly gerrymandered maps, in their lust for corporate and individual income tax cuts that make top-dollar donors swoon, in their porcine pursuit of a reprieve for ultra-rich pork producers accused of grievous environmental injustice, in their willingness to eliminate all minority party input during 2018’s historically one-sided budget process, and in their intractable willingness to deny access to health care to hundreds of thousands of lower income residents during a federally-bankrolled Medicaid expansion, the conservative legislators have shown their willingness to steamroll any dissidents.

And while no one, not even the most illogical of partisans, wants to see the state’s budget tied up in limbo this year, an outcome that seems all too likely today, gridlock is certainly preferable to this sort of reckless lawmaking. It’s the sort that earns North Carolina a regular spot in the national news rotation, not for its growing cities or sprawling natural beauty, but for its regular partisan freakouts and its election fraud and its well-earned reputation for anti-LGBTQ discrimination in its highest halls.

Compromise is a word not often uttered in the halls of the General Assembly these days, because it has never been given room to breathe.

No, the ball rests in the legislature’s court. Can it govern for North Carolina’s 10 million or so residents, and not simply the scant minority on the state’s far right?

Our government hinges upon checks and balances. We’ve seen the checks, or at least the lawyers defending the Republican majority’s ill-conceived laws in court have, but North Carolinians desperately want the balances too.