Elections, Not Political Deal Making, Should Earn Democrats Control of Committees


“The Pioneer Family” stands in front of the North Dakota State Capitol on July 14, 2016, in Bismarck. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

North Dakota Democrats hold just 22 seats out of 141 in the state Legislature. Because of this, during the regular legislative session, Democrats chair no committees. In fact, they don’t really have enough elected members of the Legislature to even cover all committee assignments.

That’s as it should be. If Democrats want to control committees they should convince more North Dakotans to vote for them.

Yet for some reason Democrats came away from a meeting of Legislative Management this week with three committee chairmanships.

The reason why has a lot to do with personal politics and deal making than anything else.

A few sessions back House Majority Leader Al Carlson became the chairman of the Legislative Management committee which runs that branch of government’s business between regular sessions. Carlson decided that the minority party shouldn’t hold interim committee chairmanships.

This caused a ruckus with Democrats. They weren’t happy.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]If Democrats don’t have enough personnel elected to the Legislature to control committees during the regular session, why should they get to control committees during the interim?[/mks_pullquote]

In comes Senator Ray Holmberg (R-Grand Forks). He was able to use the anger Carlson invoked among Democrats to get himself elected chairman of Legislative Management, a cushy gig with a lot of power and other perks.

Typically, when it comes to electing leadership of Legislative Management, the House members tend to vote for their other House Members. Same with the Senate. What Holmberg did to beat out Carlson for the chair position, however, was win over support from House Democrats by promising to restore the minority party to control of some committees.

That tipped the scales.

It’s worked brilliantly so far, only there is some acrimony this interim over the appointments. There was last cycle too, but this time it seems particularly acute.

Democrats got three committees in total, including very influential Human Services and Education committee chairmanships (full list here).

Also one of the Democrats appointed to chair a committee is Bismarck Senator Erin Oban. She’s facing a tough re-election bid in 2018. The widespread belief, particularly among Bismarck-area Republicans, is that she’ll use this appointment to bolster her campaign.

What politician wouldn’t?

Holmberg is perceived as helping Democrats in order to help himself. His critics argue that he’s being selfish.

Of course, you could also argue that Carlson’s typically hard line stance, implemented with his usual sort of all-thumbs approach to politics, created this opportunity for Holmberg in the first place.

As a practical matter I agree with Carlson. If Democrats don’t have enough personnel elected to the Legislature to control committees during the regular session, why should they get to control committees during the interim? You can strum a guitar and sing kumbaya about bipartisanship all you want, but the voters choose who to put in the Legislature, and they mostly aren’t choosing Democrats.

But on the flip side, Carlson once again proves to be his own worst enemy, creating a situation that not only cost him control of Legislative Management (he now serves as vice chair to Holmberg) but has helped the opposition party.