Thursday, June 11, 2009

Lawmakers once met six days a week, sort of

While the House contemplated an unusual Friday session this week to consider its version of the state budget and a $784 million package of tax hikes, it reminded me that earlier legislatures were routinely in session on Fridays, though those sessions often were short. The current schedule for the House and Senate usually calls for convening on Monday evenings at 7 p.m., then full days Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well as sessions on Thursdays -- sometimes long sessions, sometimes fairly short. That lets most legislators get home Thursday afternoon or night, though committee meetings and other duties can keep legislators in town all week long to work on bills, constituent problems and other issues. For a number of legislators, the General Assembly is a full-time job, but with formal sessions just four days a week.

It wasn't always that way. When I came to Raleigh in 1977 for the Greensboro Daily News, there were full sessions on Thursdays and formal, though often short, sessions on Fridays. I asked Gerry Cohen, head of the legislature's bill drafting operation and for my money one of the leading historians on the N.C. General Assembly, about work schedules. Here's what he said, via e-mail exchanges:

Friday sessions were held regularly in the House until about 2001, and regularly in the Senate until about 1997. I may be off a few years. They were like Thursday sessions are now. Through 1969 there were Saturday sessions but only non rollcall local bills were taken up.

I asked about the Saturday sessions, and Cohen replied:

My predecessor Clyde Ball who hung around 1955-1980 told me that until the constitution was revised in 1970 they could only adjourn ONE day without a joint resolution, so a Saturday session was required. Then it was changed to allow THREE days, so they dropped the Saturday session, but still had working Fridays. Eventually they dropped Friday, using up all three days of allowed break.

Cohen said the Saturday sessions were attended by only a few:

On Saturdays only Wake legislators would show up and have a pro forma session and vote on some local bills ocassionally, or so I am told. I started hanging around in 1971 so it was fresh in people mids back then. I will try to find an illustration.

He found several:

Went back to old journals, in 1969 and 1959 I checked three or four Saturdays, they were all pro forma, a member from Wake was designated by the Speaker to be Speaker Pro Tem for the day and called House to order, another member from Wake moved approval of the journal, and a third member from Wake moved to adjourn.
Went back to 1947, and Saturdays transacted lots of business every week, but it appeared to be morning only. Recorded votes, etc.


And there you have it. Legislators once spent at least parts of six days a week in Raleigh on formal sessions; Now it's four days a week. But, of course, with technology and staff and sophisticated ways to analyze problems, lawmakers have many more ways to be productive. And a lot of them work on legislative business seven days a week, no matter whether they're in Raleigh, Ramp Cove or Rodanthe.

But there aren't many Friday sessions, and I don't hear many folks lobbying for them, either.

9 comments:

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I wish they only met once a year. Because your life, liberty, and wallet are not safe while they are in session.

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