2019 Legislative Session Begins With Intrigue as Bastiat Caucus Asks Members for Dues

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, looks at the tally board Feb. 21, 2017 while lawmakers vote during the 2017 North Dakota Legislature. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

North Dakota’s 2019 legislative session begins today amid some intrigue.

Last night state Rep. Rick Becker – erstwhile Republican gubernatorial candidate who had considered an audacious move to replace the Democrats as the minority party in the state House – sent out an email to other lawmakers inviting them to join his Bastiat Caucus.

This in and of itself isn’t all that unusual. The Bastiats have existed as a loosely organized voting bloc in the state House for a while now. What’s unusual this time around is that Becker is asking for dues.

That’s raising a lot of eyebrows in Bismarck, particularly among Becker’s fellow Republicans.

“Beginning this year the Bastiat Caucus will be a dues-paying organization,” Becker wrote in an email sent out yesterday evening. ”

“Dues to become a member of the Bastiat Caucus is $200.” he continues. “Dues for freshmen legislators are $50.” Becker also notes that the Bastiat Caucus will hold meetings for non-members as well.

“This group is going to be a big problem for Chet Pollert,” one Republican lawmaker who forwarded me Becker’s email last night said in response to it, referring to incoming House Majority Leader Chet Pollert.  “A ‘rump caucus’ is always a problem which strong leaders quash at the start.”

“Our three primary aims will be to mutually inform during our meetings, communicate during floor sessions, and hold ourselves accountable to each other throughout the session,” the email states. “Healthy debate is strongly encouraged, however, no one is expected to vote in any manner except according to their personal convictions.”

“This group is going to be a big problem for Chet Pollert,” one Republican lawmaker who forwarded me Becker’s email last night said in response to it, referring to incoming House Majority Leader Chet Pollert.  “A ‘rump caucus’ is always a problem which strong leaders quash at the start.”

“That email with the dues structures and the leadership positions is exactly what we currently have with House Republican caucus,” another Republican lawmaker told me this morning. “This has the potential to be a very big problem for leader ship.”

Becker has long been a bit of a thorn in the side of what I suppose we must call “establishment” Republicans, and for the most part I’m fine with that. The NDGOP has a massive presence in the Legislature these days, as it does across state government. That supermajority is the product of a willingness to tolerate a degree of ideological diversity in the Republican ranks, though that diversity has side effects which mostly manifests itself in various factions moaning about their fellow Republicans.

So I’m not at all surprised at some of the griping about Becker (just as I’m not surprised by the Republicans who close down the state’s open primary process).

But I can understand Republicans being concerned about the creation of what’s starting to look like a new political party within their existing party.

One lawmaker I was speaking with this morning posited a hypothetical wherein the Bastiat Caucus is opposed to the House Republican Caucus leadership on some important issue. In that situation “are you going to support your leader or are you going to support Becker and the Bastiats?” the lawmaker asked me, alluding to the situation he and his colleagues might find themselves in.

It’s a good question. As quoted above, Becker’s email says the Bastiat members are free to vote their conscience on any given policy.

Although the same email says the caucus will “hold ourselves accountable” during the session.

Those seem like contradictory goals.

Either way, Becker’s caucus is a real challenge for Republican unity, one which at least some Republicans see as going beyond the tenets of diverse viewpoints and healthy debate. Though when I spoke to Becker late last year about his plan to replace Democrats as the minority caucus he emphasized to me that he wanted to help, not hurt, Republicans.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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