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On closed doors and open mics

RALEIGH — Most people my age can probably remember those “Schoolhouse Rock!” educational cartoons that once accompanied the rest of the Saturday morning cartoon fare.

“I’m Just a Bill” described, at least in theory, how a Congress member’s idea can become a bill and then ultimately a law. The crumpled, rolled up bill sings about how he “hopes and prays” that he will become a law some day.

Real life isn’t like cute cartoons. What this one left out is something called legislative caucuses.

It would be nice to believe that legislators, after working through the tough details of legislation in legislative committees, then gather on legislative chamber floors to listen to soaring oratory that helps sway their opinions on the great issues of the day.

It doesn’t work like that. Not in Congress. Not in most state legislatures. Not in North Carolina.

Legislative committees often do slog through the intricacies of a policy issue as they refine and shape a bill (at least when lobbyists don’t fashion bills that they then convince legislative leaders to spring on their colleagues in the final hours of a legislative session).

But once that process is complete, the floor debate and vote often becomes perfunctory.

That’s because the members of the majority and minority parties of each legislative chamber have already gathered in private, closed-door meetings to count noses and trade notes about the upcoming votes.

Occasionally, you will still hear some eloquent debate as legislators prepare to vote on this bill or that.

Those legislators are really talking at each other, not to each other, or they are talking to constituencies and special interests not actually there on the chamber floor.

House Republicans recently revealed some of the more meaningful debate that goes on in the North Carolina General Assembly when they accidentally left on the microphones during a closed-door caucus meeting.

Their words came rolling into the legislative press room through the audio jacks that allow the press to listen in on floor sessions and into two committee meeting rooms.

Mostly, they set out their strategy for the budget debate.

House Speaker Thom Tillis talked about not offending the five Democrats who were voting with Republicans but gave the go-ahead to “gut punch ‘em” when it came to other individual Democrats. House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam called Gov. Beverly Perdue “incompetent,” then revealed Republicans’ strategy to sidestep U.S. Justice Department review of new legislative districts.

Some people may have been surprised by the words. Why? Politics is rough and tumble, especially behind closed doors.

Defenders of the closed-door caucuses always talk about how they provide an opportunity for honest, open discussion. Apparently that’s so.

It’s hard to overlook the negatives, though.

Creating party unanimity inevitably means less independence for individual legislators and hinders their ability to truly represent the diverse interests of the voters who elected them.

It also contributes to a trait politicians are already famous for: lots of speaking, not much listening.

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

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