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Washington Politics: A Hint of Compromise or North Carolina-Style Dysfunction?

Few signs of a fresh start in 2017

Is House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, left, listening to all of the American people when his party is deciding what it will deliver, Mary C. Curtis asks. Ryan is seen here with Vice President-elect Mike Pence at a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Is House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, left, listening to all of the American people when his party is deciding what it will deliver, Mary C. Curtis asks. Ryan is seen here with Vice President-elect Mike Pence at a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Though the year has just begun, there are already signs that the partisan power struggle in Washington will not benefit from a fresh start or optimistic resolutions of renewal.

“I want to say to the American people: We hear you. We will do right by you. And we will deliver,” said re-elected House Speaker Paul Ryan, as he no doubt relished uniting with President-elect Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Washington to celebrate the consolidation of power by undoing President Barack Obama’s actions of the last eight years.

But is he listening to all of the American people when his party is deciding what exactly it will deliver? Does a president elected by an electoral- but not popular-vote majority present the best evidence of a mandate to completely change course?

The Republican majority in Washington might look south as a warning of what could happen when you believe you’re not only right, but good, and those who disagree don’t matter. It’s a charge that was lobbed at Democrats and President Obama during their years in power, but irony is in short supply when the tables are turned. It certainly did not matter in North Carolina, a state almost evenly split in party and political sentiment, where one party, nonetheless, is more interested in ruling than governing.

In Raleigh, a legislature in GOP control — by redistricting magic as much as raw votes — overreached all the way to gridlock. And voters can only watch as their representatives spend time on everything but solving the state’s challenges.

In Washington, Republicans’ first move, a hasty and somewhat secretive move to remove the teeth from the Office of Congressional Ethics, blew up and had to be reversed.

Bad look

The optics were disastrous for a party whose new leader campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp.” Top Republicans looked confused, and Trump himself tweeted his disapproval with the timing, if not the substance, of the action.

The way the vote came together, in private, at night, on a holiday, closely resembled the passage of North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill” that was discussed, passed and signed in a matter of hours. The consequences are still being felt.

In Washington, Congress got a reprieve on the ethics mess, but it might not have many more chances at partial redemption. It doesn’t take much to tarnish even a sterling reputation, as what your mother and Benjamin Franklin said has been proven true: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Opinions about Washington lawmakers, already low, won’t improve if last-minute moves, followed by recrimination and backtracking, become the norm.

Not so long ago, North Carolina enjoyed admiration as the reasonable Southern state, capable of learning from past mistakes and coming together to progress past them. Now, it has become the poster child for political, social and economic dysfunction, fodder for comics and editorial cartoonists everywhere.

Its attempt at ending 2016 on a high note didn’t turn out as planned. In a pre-arranged deal, the city of Charlotte was to toss its ordinance establishing LGBT rights, one that included the much-discussed provision allowing people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identified. And the state legislature was to invalidate HB2, passed in response to Charlotte’s action, which went further than the bathroom to prevent cities from passing their own anti-discrimination rules or raising the minimum wage. It was called a “reset.”

Taxpayers pay

Amid a lack of trust and accusations of behind-the scenes dealing on both sides, what resulted was just another instance of taxpayers on the hook for another special session and a lot of analogies of Lucy, Charlie Brown and a football being yanked at the last minute.

The new governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, has the near-impossible task of unity. His authority was trimmed by the GOP-dominated legislature and outgoing Republican governor Pat McCrory, who signed those questionable actions into law while stubbornly exiting the office after challenging the election results for weeks. Cooper is taking some of those “parting gifts” to court. It’s not the first North Carolina law or action to land in court: the state’s voting law has been bouncing back and forth after a federal court said it targeted minority voters with “almost surgical precision.”

There could be new off-year elections in 2017 if a court’s decision knocking down what it ruled extreme racial gerrymandering in districts holds. Count on present general assembly members to flex all kinds of muscle until then, and for the battle between cities and rural areas to continue.

Who remembers the North Carolina of Terry Sanford moderation in the 1960s? Or of Harvey Gantt, elected Charlotte’s first African-American mayor in the 1980s before having his 1990s hopes for the U.S. Senate dashed by Jesse Helms’ divisive appeals, sentiments echoed in the 2016 presidential contest? When President Obama narrowly won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012, the state seemed about as evenly divided as the country is right now; the situation demanded a logical attempt to compromise.

The legislature, though, with an aggressively conservative agenda, has come close to the edge of the ledge, and seems more determined than ever to jump.

If Republicans in Congress decide to follow that example, that’s a choice. After objecting when the Affordable Care Act was passed by Democrats without bipartisan support, the GOP may be about to go down that same road in efforts to repeal it.

It’s a pattern that they may choose to repeat time and again, on issues as varied as criminal justice reform, climate change and immigration. But first, ask North Carolina how that’s working out for them.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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