“Checks-and-balances” is one of those quaint concepts that brings to mind high school civics classes with posters of American Presidents taped to the walls. We all know what it means, at least vaguely. In our system, all the various branches and sub-branches can “check” one another, thereby leading to “balance” in our government. Although it’s an integral and ingenious part of our system, most of us give it little thought. As in the song, and like lots of important things we take for granted, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” And guess what? It’s gone.
Some species of Republicans now control – or soon will – all three branches of government. Trump is President and, after his cabinet appointments are all in place, he will control the vast federal executive bureaucracy. In the House of Representatives it’s 241 Republicans to 194 Democrats. The current count in Senate is 52 to 48 (depending on where the Independents caucus and barring defections to the Republicans). The Supreme Court is a little trickier to count. Limping along with just eight members, four appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democrats, it’s essentially split for the moment. Trump, however , is expected to make his nomination soon and that nominee – based on Trump’s comments – is sure to be a solid conservative, a justice in the mold of the late Justice Scalia.
So the checks will be gone and the balances recalibrated. Where does that leave us? The answer is provided by, of all things, Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. The book tells the story of little boy named Max who runs amok in his house and is banished to his bedroom. Once there, he fanaticizes about a kingdom of monsters over whom he rules. Having conjured these wild things, Max declares “let the wild rumpus start!”
No checks and no balances equals wild rumpus. I’m not just guessing here, but relying on my own experience as a citizen of the State of North Carolina where I’ve lived through the long wild rumpus of 2013-16. By way of background, in the 2012 elections, the Republicans won the governor’s office and added to their majorities in the State’s General Assembly House and Senate. Republicans also controlled the Supreme Court. For the first time, they controlled all the branches.
I know I’m talking about just one State among 50, but bear with me because our experience here foreshadows what we are all about to experience as a nation. In North Carolina, a legislative coalition of country lawyers, “entrepreneurs,” retired dentists, and evangelical pastors swung into action. Having obtained total control, they began the wild rumpus.
Those enactments fell into three basic categories. First, were the laws that always sounded so good when campaigning, but looked horribly ugly when enacted. In this category where things like public school vouchers which are the raw meat thrown to certain voters, but which serve only to undermine public schools. Voter suppression laws based on fantasies of voter fraud (and later declared unconstitutional) are also in this category.
The second category broadly included enacting various pet projects, as well as a whole series of laws designed for revenge and payback from legislators with axes to grind. The General Assembly enacted much ballyhooed laws favoring of oil and gas fracking even though there’s not much worth fracking in North Carolina and the industry has shown scant interest in it. Coupled with that were laws designed to make alternative energy – solar and wind – less attractive even though North Carolina businesses were adopting them voluntarily.
The revenge and raw partisanship were most in evidence at the end of 2016 when the General Assembly, having lost the governorship to a Democrat, called itself into an irregular “special session” and began the process of trying to dismantle the governor’s traditional powers. Within weeks, the process of declaring those laws unconstitutional began.
In the third category, and none of these categories are necessarily exclusive, were the payoffs. This includes legislation enacted for big contributors and, sometimes, themselves. The biggest group in this category belonged to a wholesale weakening of environmental laws One state senator even helped create a fund to subsidize the extension of natural gas lines to rural farms and then applied for a $925,000 grant from the program he created.
If the substance of the laws were not bad enough, the process, in many cases, was even worse. Legislation, rather than passing through committees in orderly fashion, was crafted in secret, brought to the floor with virtually no debate, and then signed into law in the dead of night. The infamous H.B. 2 – North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” designed to scapegoat the transgender community in an election-year stunt – perfectly fit this pattern. It became law before most citizens even knew it was on the table, let alone had time to consult with their elected officials. Like many ideas arising from the wild rumpus, it backfired as a political tool – the governor who signed it at night lost, for example – and it’s cost North Carolina millions in lost jobs, concerts, and sporting events.
Every morning, we faced the dispiriting spectacle of newspapers reporting one crazy proposal after another as our legislators sought to top the previous day’s dose of lunacies. Over the course of each legislative session, the craziness would build to a crescendo until they adjourned and finally left town, giving us some much-needed relief. In the process, they managed to turn a reasonably well-functioning State into the poster child of the loony right.
And now we have this to look forward to on the national level. For those of you who have not lived through this, expect of wearying barrage of proposals designed to bring us back to the America of the 1950’s (or maybe the banana republics of that era). Plan to be surprised every day as representatives and senators fall over themselves trying to top each other in the sheer insanity of the laws and regulations they propose. Prepare to have rational arguments sneered at. Get ready to feel powerless because, mostly, we are powerless.
Let the wild rumpus start!
Semi-Optimistic Postscript: The recent attempt from the House Republican Conference to do away with the independent Office of Congressional Ethics is straight from the North Carolina playbook. The pesky ethics watchdogs were a thorn in the side of representatives for whom ethics was just a nuisance. The decision to rein in its independence was made behind closed doors and without any publicity until it was done. Needless to say, no Democrats were asked to weigh in. And yet, the power grab was so naked and so quick that public and media outcry forced them to back down the next day. Even Trump got into the act once he saw which way the wind was blowing. Does this portend some check on the wild rumpus? Watch this space.