The pros and cons of legislative session limits
Published August 24, 2023
By Paul Stam
Legislative session limits can be imposed by rule, statute or constitution. Rules and statutes do not work as intended because they will be overridden when important business needs to be attended to. A later statute trumps the previous one, as in “Notwithstanding General Statute XYZ, the General Assembly enacts.” So if the state wants to impose session limits to avoid more drawn-out sessions like the current one, a constitutional change would be most practical path.
What effects are likely if real constitutional change occurs?
First, the advantages:
1. Possibly a shorter session.
2. Possibly a more economically diverse assembly.
There are downsides. Some are not obvious. Political power does not go away. Political power migrates. In my opinion, the most likely effects of real session limits would be to:
a. shift power from most members (even the majority) of the General Assembly to committee chairs in general, to leaders in particular, and to the long-time legislative staff. There will be more omnibus bills, more imaginative conference reports, and more unamendable concurrence votes, especially in the last few days. New provisions in conference reports spring forth without parentage as Artemis from the sea foam of the Aegean.
b. shift power from the legislative branch to the judicial and executive branch (cabinet departments, council of state, and agencies). Departments and agencies will accrue more rule-making authority and receive less oversight. Courts will decide more disputes as details are left to regulators. As more “last-minute” legislation is passed, ambiguities multiply.
c. shift power from unorganized groups and individuals to organized groups, of both left and right, who have influential (highly paid) lobbyists.
d. cause the assembly to seem like it is “in session” all year long. It will often be called into “special session.” More business will come from study committees and select committees between “sessions.” Study and select committees are much more likely to involve stacked memberships than regular committees.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
In 2011, the General Assembly adjourned for the year on June 18. But there were special sessions all summer: from July 13 through July 28 for redistricting and veto overrides, again from Sept. 12 to Sept. 14 for “constitutional questions.” While many members were able to go home that summer, the effect was that the entire summer was consumed by lobbying for and against (including grass roots support for and against) these measures. The “session” did not really end until Sept. 14. And there was a special session in November for a redistricting curative act. The public had to be ready for anything. If there are real “session limits,” the “session” will never end for active and reactive members.
The “long session” of 2015 began with the organizational session held on Jan. 14. The General Assembly reconvened on Jan. 28. Very little happened during February. The first public law was signed by the governor on March 16, 2015. By the end of April, only nine public bills had become law.
The House planned in advance a one-week vacation for Easter break. The House and Senate planned a July 4 week break. Very little legislation became law in July and August. Many members stayed home. Others twiddled their thumbs. After Labor Day, the appropriations bill came together, and many consequential bills passed in September.
During 2015 session, the House continued its salutary practice of holding no Friday sessions (except for the occasional midnight session at 12:01 am). Out of 36 Monday night sessions, 19 were “no-vote” sessions. In the Senate, there were 34 Monday sessions, of which 16 were “no-vote” sessions. And the Monday sessions when votes were held usually dealt with insignificant bills. In effect, Mondays were free to those members who wanted it so.
While the 2015 session extended to Sept. 30, there was no more legislation passed than in prior long sessions, measured at least by votes and laws.
The 2023 session will last until at least September. The constant delays are for no reason discernible to the public.
SOME IDEAS TO MAKE LIFE BETTER FOR MEMBERS AND THE PUBLIC WITHOUT A CONSTITUTIONAL SESSION LIMIT
Many members now commute to Raleigh. If members (and the public) could predict their schedule well in advance, service would be more attractive. Here are some “rules” to make life for members and lobbyists possible. These rules should only be suspended by a two-thirds vote.
1. Members may file bills as soon as the organizational session is concluded, rather than waiting several weeks until the General Assembly reconvenes. Members could begin studying other members’ bills, and staff will have bills ready earlier.
2. Set vacation weeks well in advance, agreed to in the rules during the organizational week. A spring break week and a July 4 week are important and helpful but only to the extent that members can plan their lives with their families.
Does that mean that no one will work at the assembly that week? No. Conferees will have to work if there is no budget agreement by July 4. But there is no reason to have the vast majority of members hanging around that week. During spring break, committee chairs with a full load should expect to work through that week so that when members return, the committees can handle a full agenda.
3. The unique hiatus this year from mid-July through August and into September is due to factors that most members recognize but cannot explain to the public. I cannot think of a single rule that would have changed this result. Hopefully the experience itself will enlighten future negotiations.
In early August, we read that there were 120 budget differences that only the Senate pro tem and the speaker could solve. Why has the Conference Committee never met to decide the big issues? In 1990, I was on a real budget conference committee that actually met and voted. Leaders had significant input. But there was some transparency.
Those who advocate session limits have the burden of proof on the basic question: Will laws be more reasonable and just if an enforceable “session limit” becomes law? That is the important question. On that measure I have serious doubts that session limits will help.