“If someone ties a love note to a nuclear bomb, do you take ‘em both?”

That was State Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat, complaining about the legislature’s Republican majority tying a controversial budget cut provision to a popular proposed extension of unemployment benefits.

Of course, as Sen. Nesbitt knows, this kind of posturing goes on all the time in the General Assembly and in the Congress. The best way to get an unpopular piece of legislation passed and signed by the president or a governor is to tie it tightly to a very popular bill.

When I first started my former job representing the university system in the legislative halls, I had a lot to learn. (And to be fair, I still had a lot to learn even after I had spent years on the job.)
One of the hardest things for me to understand is the marketplace character of the legislature. What do I mean? Simply this: It is where a lot of trading goes on. When a legislator or a lobbyist wants to get something done, he or she quickly finds out that it will not automatically happen just because it is a good idea.
It usually takes some trading.
Here is an example. When the legislature gives inflationary increases to the pensions of state workers, it regularly makes similar adjustments for the faculty members who participate in a nationwide academic retirement plan. The university system views this adjustment as something that should be automatic.

But, towards the end of one session, when we approached the chair of the committee responsible for the retirement provisions of the budget, he let us know in no uncertain terms that the adjustment would not be automatic.

“We’ll see about that,” he said as he quickly shifted his eyes away from us to meet those of another supplicant.

I panicked, but my mentor, the late Jay Robinson, was calm. “Don’t worry about it too much,” he said. “Old Joe just needs something to trade. He will hold it back so that if he needs something from a university partisan, he can trade his approval of the pension provision to get what he wants.”

It didn’t seem right. “But,” explained Robinson, “that is the kind of trade every legislator wants—trading something that is probably going to happen anyway, in exchange for something he really wants but would not have happened if he hadn’t held something back he could give up.”

Does it seem complicated and unfair?

It did to me, too. But once I learned how the system worked, I got a lot more done than when I was just arguing the merits of the case.

However, there is a risk to this tactic. When the public becomes convinced that some person or some group is, in Sen. Nesbitt’s words, “tying an atom bomb” to something the government ought to be doing without condition, that person or group can be in trouble. They can get tagged with putting politics ahead of the public interest.

I learned another lesson about legislative trading in 2007 when I was interim director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Although the fund was popular with most legislators, the House of Representatives reduced the fund’s appropriation in its preliminary budget. When I asked why, the House budget leaders told me privately, “The fund will get its appropriation in the end, but Sen. Basnight really loves that program, and we need something to trade when we negotiate a final budget with him.”

If it were not so important, watching our legislators could be fun.

Like watching all the insider signals at a baseball game–or watching sausage being made.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Comment below!

D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/
This week’s (Sunday, May 1) guest is Lee Smith, author of “Mrs. Darcy & The Blue-eyed Stranger.”