No doubt envious of the attention federal politicians are getting in our nation’s chaotic capital, North Carolina’s political leaders have set off a constitutional controversy of their own.
In December, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring Gov. Roy Cooper’s cabinet secretaries to submit to confirmation hearings. Cooper has sued in response, and a three-judge panel has temporarily halted the hearings.
Philosophically, legislative Republicans have a strong case.
Our system of government is based on checks and balances. While the governor controls the executive branch, the powers to do so are not absolute. The legislative branch has a legitimate role in assessing beforehand the people to whom the governor would give control of billion-dollar departments and the power to decide the myriad important questions that face those agencies every day.
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Under the system in place for decades and the one Cooper argues to continue, governors have simply chosen cabinet secretaries without their undergoing any outside scrutiny. We’ve been fortunate to have had as many good secretaries as we’ve had.
At other levels of government, we don’t grant power so blithely. For example, while not being a perfect comparison, our school boards, city councils and county commissioners implement exhaustive search processes to find new superintendents and managers, respectively.
Candidates for such jobs regularly undergo numerous interviews, intense background checks and, in a recent development, daylong screenings that include complex role-playing exercises. They do that for jobs that control much less money and affect far fewer lives than cabinet secretaries.
At the state level, there should be meaningful confirmation hearings. If the courts eventually rule that the state constitution does not already provide for confirming cabinet secretaries, then it should be amended to do so.
Of course, when Republicans employ the “good government” rationale for instituting these hearings, as they have this year, they sound as sincere as the automated voice you hear when you call your cable-TV company: “Your call is important to us.”
It’s important to take this “advise and consent” initiative in the context of everything else our Republican legislature has done since 2011.
Time and again, Sen. Phil Berger, his minions and his allies in the House have rationalized voting changes, executive branch power grabs, government reorganizations, redistricting and autocratic behavior on good-government grounds when it is obvious that they just want to consolidate and expand their political power.
Had Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore been genuinely concerned about cabinet appointments, they would have passed their law during a regular legislative session, with advanced notice and after the kind of in-depth hearings that they now want for the cabinet appointments. Instead, they rolled it out during a previously unannounced special session at the height of the Christmas shopping season. And they should have done it when it would have applied to a governor of their own party, thus softening the law’s partisan edge.
Their hypocrisy in preaching “good government” is breathtaking.
If we want such a thing, we should take the confirmation process further than the Republicans propose and confirm the appointment of cabinet secretaries, their senior deputies and like persons in Council of State departments. Furthermore, legislative appointments, such as to the UNC Board of Governors, should be subject to gubernatorial veto with no override.
Let’s really implement government checks and balances and stop playing political games.
Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.