John Hood: I like Marc Basnight, but …
RALEIGH ó Now that outgoing President Pro Tem Marc Basnight has announced his retirement from the North Carolina Senate, lawmakers ought to make a firm commitment never to allow another politician like Basnight to rise to power.
Just to be clear: I like the man personally and wish him well in his retirement. What I mean is that never again should a single state lawmaker be allowed to exercise the kind of power Basnight enjoyed in Raleigh for nearly 20 years. And never again should a lawmaker be allowed to game the electoral system, as Basnight has now done, to prevent voters from selecting their own political representation.
Before the Dare County Democrat was elected leader of the senate in 1993, there had been no modern tradition of a single senator running the chamber for long stretches of time. Admittedly, Democrat Jimmy Green ran the senate for eight years, from 1977 to 1984 (after previously serving a couple of years as speaker of the house). But at least Green did so as a lieutenant governor twice elected by a statewide vote.
When Republican Jim Gardner won the lieutenant governorís job in 1988, Democrats stripped it of its legislative authority and made the president pro tem the de facto leader of the senate. Over nine straight terms, Basnight accumulated unprecedented and unwelcome power over state government.
Republics have always functioned best with rotation in office. Classical polities such as the Roman Republic used both tradition and law to ensure turnover. Today, large majorities of citizens favor the imposition of term limits on federal and state lawmakers, viewing the accumulation of power as too great a temptation for politicians and too great an injury to the principle of limited, representative government.
As the new Republican majorities take power in the legislature, their leaders have pledged not to serve in the top jobs for unlimited terms. Thatís a fine sentiment, but Iíd like to see it codified in pledges from all senators and representatives that, if reelected, they will never vote to reelect senate presidents or house speakers who have already served two terms in those jobs. If necessary, I donít think a constitutional amendment would be too extreme a safeguard against a recurrence of the Basnight problem.
Or, to be more precise, the Basnight longevity problem. There is now another problem to which one might affix his name: the manipulation of the electoral system.
When announcing his resignation on January 4, just two months after being reelected, Basnight cited his declining health and upcoming marriage as the reasons. But both factors predate Election Day. I was among many political observers who predicted, months earlier, that Basnight would never serve out his 2011-12 term ó particularly if the Democrats lost power in the chamber.
The tragedy of his deteriorating speech and motor skills does not absolve Basnight from responsibility for seeking reelection without a real commitment to serve his term. If he had announced his retirement in 2010, his GOP-trending district would likely have featured a competitive race for the open seat ó with the potential of adding another Republican to the partyís new 31-19 majority. By staying on the ballot and then resigning after Election Day, Basnight allowed the Democratic Party to chose the person who will represent the 1st District for the next two legislative sessions. The voters will have no say in the matter.
Basnight isnít the first legislator to use this gimmick. I well remember one western legislator who once resigned his post weeks just after his re-election to become a lobbyist at the General Assembly! Still, Basnightís tactic is the most recent example of the problem. Letís fix it.
The General Assembly should change the law to fill legislative vacancies at the next general election, even if it is an odd-numbered year. In Basnightís case, then, at least the appointed senator would serve in only one session before the voters have a say rather than two.
I wonít begrudge Marc Basnight his laudatory send-off and peaceful retirement. But letís not go through all this again, okay?
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.