There Is a Fight in the North Dakota House Between New and Old Lawmakers

The North Dakota House of Representatives on January 31, 2017 Photo via Twitter

The state House of Representatives held a second floor session today at 5:00pm, which is a bit unusual. Typically we don’t see multiple daily floor sessions until the crunch times before crossover (when the House and Senate exchange their passed bills) and sine die which ends the overall legislative session.

The former is still weeks away, the latter months.

I asked around about why the House is holding a second floor session today. “Debate went too long,” one of the new members of the state House told me this afternoon.

A legislative observer said House Majority Leader Al Carlson is upset at the progress the House is making on working through their list of bills. Word is the leader is irked because the debate on some bills has been protracted, particularly by first-session “freshman” lawmakers who are, in the eyes of veteran lawmakers, rising to speak too often and for too long.

The debate over the blue laws bill, which passed today on reconsideration, was a particularly visible fault line. Yesterday the bill took up 32 minutes of floor session time. Today the reconsideration took another 10 minutes.

That’s a lot of time by North Dakota standards. With every bill introduced getting a committee hearing and a floor vote, time is a precious commodity.

Some veteran lawmakers I spoke to were upset at how much time their first-session colleagues spent talking on the bill, particularly since at least a few of them come from the libertarian-leaning wing of the party.

“It’s the holier than thou moral righteousness from this group that is really wearing thing among members,” a lawmaker who has been serving for nearly a decade told me. He said the blue laws bill had ruffled a lot of feathers “Keep an eye on this as we go forward in the session. It is starting to really cause a bit of friction between those guys and the veterans.”

But some of the new lawmakers say they feel there is a target on their backs. One lawmaker who was just elected last year said there has been overheard conversations among veteran lawmakers who have been saying that they’re going to work to kill all of Rep. Rick Becker’s bills because he’s submitted to many.

“It’s the holier than thou moral righteousness from this group that is really wearing thing among members,” a lawmaker who has been serving for nearly a decade told me. He said the blue laws bill had ruffled a lot of feathers “Keep an eye on this as we go forward in the session. It is starting to really cause a bit of friction between those guys and the veterans.”

Becker, in his second term and third legislative session, founded what he’s calling the Bastiat Caucus (they even have a website!), and many of the younger House members are considered members to one degree or another (it doesn’t seem to be a very formal group). He also is the prime sponsor on 17 bills this session, and is a co-sponsor of another 31. Which is a lot, as he’s acknowledged himself.

Which isn’t a problem with this observer – I’m against bill limits for lawmakers – but it’s clearly put some noses out of joint in Bismarck. I’ve heard a lot griping from a number of different sources about “Becker bills.”

So what’s going on here?

This friction is the product of a few factors, I think

First, there are a lot of new faces in the state Legislature. In 2014 there were 13 new members of the House and Senate. The 2016 election added another 17.

That’s a 20 percent turnover rate for the entire Legislature in two sessions. That means a lot of new faces, and a lot of people who aren’t in tune with some of the traditions of serving in the legislature. For instance, today during the debate on the blue law reconsideration, Rep. Sebastian Ertelt of Lisbon pointedly asked Rep. Keith Kempenich why he moved to reconsider the bill (video here). That’s not a against any formal rule, but it is kind of a no-no. Particularly for a freshman lawmaker.

Kempenich, who has served in the House since 1993, explained himself gracefully, but there was a lot of grumbling among veteran lawmakers afterward.

Second, we also have a new Governor in Doug Burgum who campaigned as a shake-em-up political insider. He railed against the “good old boys club” in his primary campaign (if not the general), and while he’s sought to mend fences since, there are still some bruised feelings down in Bismarck.

Third, the Republican caucus is enormous. Democrats hold so few seats they’re essentially a non-factor. With so large a Republican tent some faction is to be expected.

Overall I think this is a healthy dynamic. There’s nothing wrong with rattling the cages of the old guard, nor is there anything wrong with taking some starch out of upstart lawmakers out to fix all the state’s problems in their first couple of sessions.

I just hope they figure out how to get along as push comes to shove on the state’s pressing budget issues.

By the way, most of the food-fighting seems to be going on in the House. If there is a similar dynamic at play in the Senate, a much smaller legislative body, nobody is talking to me about it.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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