Exile on Jones Street: On the origin of the specious

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

I don’t know if House Speaker Pro Tem Skip Stam (R-Wake) says certain things just to keep us amused or if his capacity for irony is truly superhuman.

Stam, Thom Tillis’s second in command, a leading light among social conservatives and a scholar of scholarly things, likes to offer a historical reference every now and then.

Earlier this session, in encouraging fewer restrictions on party-switchers in an elections bill, he quoted Mao, suggesting his colleagues “let a hundred flowers bloom.”

Mao did indeed suggest that in launching an openness movement in the mid 1950s in which people were encouraged to express dissent. But that ultimately led to the brutal suppression of those flowers and their subsequent imprisonment and re-education under the Cultural Revolution, giving the phrase a much more ominous meaning.

While that Stam reference was amusing on several levels, one that drolled out late in the session was even more telling.

In speaking about a provision in a bill that would have eliminated the state’s Child Fatality Task Force, Stam, part of a bipartisan coalition that opposed the change, wondered about the provision’s origins, supposing that it “arose like Aphrodite from the sea foam of the Aegean.”

While the Aegean in this case was actually the House Rules Committee, the analogy is illustrative.

To boil down the tale, Aphrodite emerged from the foamy mess that resulted when her father’s genitals were cut off and tossed into the sea. Therein lies the brilliance — intentional or happenstantial — of Stam’s comment, which he tossed out during floor debate on July 25 with the same ease as Kronos flinging the above-mentioned procreative elements of Uranus into the Aegean. The origin of things — in this case legislation and goddesses — is often a little more complicated and a lot more twisted than what it seems.

Part of the secrecy of the General Assembly is necessary to create a firewall for the legislature’s professional staff, who are charged with accurately drafting and, later, explaining the provisions and the heat of politics. The staff is bound not only by a confidentiality requirement, but an almost religious oath of secrecy and they’re very good at keeping both. Even speaking on background on minute detail of bills, they won’t tip you as to who ordered up what in the way of provisions or specific language.

The staff is bound not only by a confidentiality requirement, but an almost religious oath of secrecy and they’re very good at keeping both.

Unfortunately, a lot of elected officials and their staffers like to slip behind the firewall, too, especially when the heat is on.

You’d be surprised at how little these usually well informed folks know about when you ask how special favors to certain industries or unpopular provisions like eliminating something aimed at improving the health of children got into a bill.

This session we saw all kinds of Aphrodite provisions springing forth, origins unknown and with exact effects murky on first read.

In the wind-down of the session, several emerged in the budget and in cumbersome omnibus bills and amalgamations of legislation stitched together and hurried through.

The combination of fast-moving omnibus bills and stealth provisions means that not only is policy being revised with little debate, but it is done so without any accountability down to the individual level.

The reason for this, if it’s not already painfully clear, is that what various industries and interests are asking for — and in a lot of cases getting — would be damaging politically to anyone proposing them out in the open.

And so you have provisions like changes to water-quality standards or the removal of most of the state’s air quality monitors arriving on Jones Street as orphans on the half-shell.

It’s a good guess that the well-compensated legal staffs of various lobbying houses are drafting many of these provisions, but for them to be put into bills and introduced it takes someone elected by the people to give the okay. If that person is not willing to stand up and take credit for their handiwork, it is up to her colleagues to at least raise the question of origin.

Nearly every new leadership in the General Assembly promises greater transparency upon arrival, this one even more so given its unique opportunity of a clean slate. Between the excessive use of hard-to-amend omnibus bills and stealth provisions of dubious parentage, the trend has been in the opposite direction.

If these were merely questions of patronage or minor parochial tiffs they could be dismissed as legislative prerogative, but we’re talking about changes that affect us all, from voting to the legal system to the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Lovely as she was, Aphrodite was furious at anyone who denied her. You should be, too.