Civics class teaches us that each member of a legislative chamber has an equal vote. Crossover week at the N.C. General Assembly reminds us that some of those votes are more equal than others.
Crossover week takes place once every two years. It leads up to a self-imposed deadline for most legislation to clear either the state House or the state Senate. Fail to meet the deadline, and your idea lies dormant for the next two years.
At least in theory.
The crossover deadline does have a practical impact for most lawmakers. Thursday marks this year’s finish line for hundreds of bills. As of this writing, House members have filed 871 bills and resolutions this year. That’s more than seven bills per representative. The House had approved 195 (roughly 22 percent) of those items heading into the week.
Senators have filed 675 bills and resolutions, an average of more than 13 per member. The Senate has been less active in addressing its own members’ ideas. It has approved 40 items. That’s less than 6 percent of the bills filed.
This means that both chambers have more than 600 pieces of legislation that could head to the proverbial scrap heap if they don’t secure a vote by the end of the legislative week. That’s why lawmakers expect long sessions this week. Each legislative calendar will feature dozens of bills. It’s fairly safe to say that few lawmakers will have time to read — let alone study — all of the ideas that they will be expected to approve or reject.
While the scenario outlined above offers an accurate picture of the hectic nature of crossover week, it’s overly simplistic. Not every piece of legislation filed to date must meet Thursday’s deadline. In addition, it’s certain that some of this year’s major legislation will emerge for the first time after the deadline.
For instance, we’ve not yet seen a state budget plan. The Senate will produce its proposal first, and that’s likely to happen in May. Crossover rules will not block that major piece of legislation.
Nor does the deadline apply to other bills with budget implications. Veteran legislative watchers are likely to remember cases in which bill sponsors have scrambled during crossover week to add small fees to their proposals. That small change frees a bill from a crossover requirement. Other budget-related amendments can play the same role in saving a straggling bill from oblivion.
There are other legislative maneuvers in play as well. Take, for example, the tool used to repeal controversial House Bill 2 at the end of March. House Bill 142 started its life as a measure to increase oversight of North Carolina’s occupational licensing boards. The House approved that measure, 115-1, on March 6. Little more than three weeks later, the Senate stripped all of the language related to occupational licensing and replaced it with unrelated provisions addressing bathroom access and other HB2 topics. Senators approved the measure and returned it to the House, which accepted the changes.
This action took place before the crossover deadline, of course. But there’s nothing stopping legislative leaders from employing the same strategy to move favored legislation in the future. Leading lawmakers could “gut and replace” any bill that’s already cleared the other chamber.
As crossover week started, the Senate had approved just nine of the nearly 200 measures that had cleared the House. The House had endorsed just three of the 40 Senate-approved bills. Many of these measures could end up as “vehicles” for other ideas as the legislative session rolls on. Some could even sit unaddressed until 2018.
This is where we return to the notion, paraphrased from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that some votes become more equal than others.
The “gut and replace” option represents just the most obvious way in which House and Senate leaders can avoid their own deadline. Favored legislation also can end up as a budget provision, an amendment to another previously approved bill, or a “technical correction” approved during the closing hours of the year’s final legislative days.
The key to each of these options is that they are available only to legislative leaders. Democrats, who employed these tactics during their own days of legislative power, cannot use them now. Nor can members of the Republican caucus whose ideas differ from those within the leadership team.
Crossover week is important. It’s most important for those who lack other tools to move their ideas forward.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.