Some Bills Will Never Come Due
RALEIGH -- One of the joys of growing up in the 1970s was rotting your brain with Saturday morning cartoons while rotting your teeth with sugary cereal. But darned if they didn't sneak in some mental nutrition amongst the G.I. Joe ads, like the three-minute ditty on how a bill becomes a law.
The cartoon fellow who sang, "I'm just a bill," described the tribulations he would have to face to get enacted into law, and all the ways that he could die in the process. Even today, be it a Congressional resolution or a bill in the North Carolina General Assembly, passing a law is no easy thing.
So it was hard to tell who was more detached from reality last week: Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, and a couple of like-minded honorables who put forward a gay marriage ban that would fly in the face of a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, or those who freaked out about it.
Anyone who follows the legislature up close could have told you Pittman's bill wouldn't come within five miles of a committee hearing. And if you didn't believe us, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, took the unusual step of announcing Pittman's exercise in 19th century political philosophy was deader than John C. Calhoun.
Still the L.A. Times headline blared: "After transgender bathroom battle, North Carolina looks to ban same-sex marriage."
Sorry, California friends, but no. Even granting that we Tar Heels haven't lived the last year on the cutting edge of social progress, trumpeting a just-filed bill as a nearly done deal is wrongheaded.
North Carolina is a state of 10 million people who send 170 lawmakers of widely varying temperaments to Raleigh. Some of them might believe it's a problem for two guys or two gals to get hitched, but not too many of them are down for rehashing issues settled by the Civil War.
Just because Pittman, the same social media rock star who compared Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler last week, chucked a legislative Molotov cocktail into the kitty doesn't mean the adults in the room at the legislature -- and there are some, all evidence notwithstanding at times -- are going along with it. More than 1,500 bills have been filed already this session, and only a fraction of them will head to the governor's desk.
Pittman represents roughly 83,000 constituents, 24,636 of who voted for him in 2016, so it doesn't do to dismiss him out of hand. But he does not hold the kind of committee chairmanship or leadership post that would let him lever a bill through the legislative process single handedly.
And while his Republican colleagues try not to slam a fellow member on the record, they do know that attention-grabbing legislation can be counterproductive.
"I try not to file 'run-on' bills," said Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, using the term for bills designed to look good in campaign ads rather than statute books.
Torbett, who has three small statues of Lincoln scattered about his office, acknowledges that all lawmakers file their long shots. He's been trying to lift the requirement that motorcycle riders wear a helmet for eight years now.
"That's my freedom bill," Torbett said. He makes the case that there's a difference between pushing policy, even if it's unpopular, and simply stirring the pot.
There have always been bills that are out of the mainstream, but once upon a time they were paid no mind. We scruffy media types would write them off as what they were -- dead on arrival -- and then go report on something that actually had a shot.
But in this day and age, a quick social media Tweet can call worldwide attention to the absurd instantly, then the outrage machine that is the Internet takes it from there. Even editors and TV news directors in North Carolina couldn't resist -- they knew good click bait when they saw it.
"It's unfortunate that we become the butt of jokes," Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, told me last week. "Even those bills aren't going anywhere, it reflects poorly on our state."
Harrison is sympathetic to those who feel compelled to call out bills like Pittman's. "I think it deserves a different reaction," she said.
Fair enough, but can we throw in a little perspective in as well? Will there be any outrage left for legislation that might actually pass? Just because a lawmaker or two are selling something doesn't mean the whole state is buying.
After all, it's just a bill.
Mark Binker is Editor of the NC Insider State Government News Service. Write to him email@example.com.