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The often-overlooked process of making laws

RALEIGH — Journalists don’t typically write much about the process of passing laws because, at the end of the day, public policy and not process affects people’s lives.

So, reporting from the North Carolina General Assembly typically focuses on state spending priorities, tax proposals, smoking bans, banking and insurance changes, ethics rules and the like.

Even those subjects — although they can change our lives in ways big and small — hardly grab the imagination when competing against the latest Harry Potter movie or the newest smart phone and its do-everything apps.

How bills move through legislative committees to chamber floors and then become law can be even less compelling.

Not that the process doesn’t occasionally spill into the news.

It happened when North Carolina legislators approved a state lottery. A state Senate procedure known as “pairing,” where an absent senator is essentially allowed a vote, came into play. It occurred in Congress when Democrats used a reconciliation bill to work out compromises for health care reform legislation.

Sometimes the process gets so messy or boisterous that it calls attention to itself. The members of an aggrieved minority party might, for example, start waving signs on a chamber floor, violating chamber rules, and a House speaker might threaten to call police. (It happened here in 2000.)

Even so, the larger public isn’t going to get too excited about this process stuff as long as the basics of representative government are observed, as long as a majority of votes carries the day.

It’s not surprising that as Republicans prepare to take the reins of legislative power in Raleigh that they are promising to make the process more open, more fair.

“Those who have been hurt or stifled by the rules in the past are much more willing to make the rules fair, perhaps, than those who have not experienced that,” Republican state Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County recently said.

Over in the Senate, Republicans are pledging to work more cooperatively with Democrats.

Those promises are easy to make now. Wait until Democrats try amending budget bills in ways that are all about God, country, mom and apple pie but undo a fragile, carefully constructed plan put together by the new Republican majority.

Lewis, his House GOP colleagues and prospective new House Speaker Thom Tillis also have a lot to live up to.

A minority party in the North Carolina legislature may never have been treated fairer than Democratic House Speaker Joe Hackney treated House Republicans over the past four years.

The same wasn’t true in the Senate, where former Democratic Majority Leader Tony Rand took delight in confounding and frustrating GOP senators with his procedural maneuvers and roadblocks.

As Republican rule begins, some political observers may actually pay attention to whether this talk about openness and fairness means much.

Later on, when attention fades and the natural tendency of political power to become more concentrated takes hold, the real test begins.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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