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How legislatures work - a lesson from congressman Hayes

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, August 1, 2005

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How has Congressman Robin Hayes helped us to understand what will be going on in the North Carolina General Assembly during the next few weeks?

Last week the U.S. House narrowly passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). CAFTA will liberalize trade with six small Caribbean and Central American countries. Because it opens the door to more textile imports, many representatives of North Carolina textile manufacturers and workers opposed the legislation. Although some mill owners said the bill would help them by opening markets for their products, the state’s entire delegation in the U.S. House, except for Charlotte area Representative Sue Myrick, had announced opposition to the bill.

Democrats and Republican legislators alike have “flip-flopped”

Myrick is a deputy majority whip. As a part of the Republican leadership, she is charged with rounding up votes for House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s priority legislation. So her support was understandable.

The positions of other North Carolina representatives were similar to those expressed by Hayes during the weeks preceding the vote. The Raleigh News & Observer quoted Hayes as follows: “I am flat-out, completely, horizontally opposed to CAFTA…..It's not in the best interests of the core constituency I represent…Every time I drive through Kannapolis and I see those empty plants, I know there is no way I could vote for CAFTA.”

Of course, he did vote for CAFTA—much to the delight of North Carolina Democrats, who hope to use Hayes’s “flip-flop” as a campaign issue in next year’s elections.

Today’s lesson, though, is not in partisan politics. Democrats and Republican legislators alike have “flip-flopped” when their leaders have asked for help.

Hayes explained his switch by saying that Speaker Hastert sought him out and told Hayes that he “really needed” his vote.

It is not clear what, if any, consideration Hastert promised Hayes for his change. It was probably nothing specific. But both Hayes and Hastert know that Hayes made an important sacrifice by voting for a bill that is unpopular in Hayes’s district.

Passing CAFTA was a test of Hastert’s leadership. He not only wanted to win; he needed to win. A legislative leader with a reputation for losing important battles will not be the leader for long.

From Hayes’s standpoint, he wants his leader, Hastert, to be strong, and he wants to be on Hastert’s “team.”

The unwritten “team” rules for legislators are something like this: “Vote your conscience and the interests of your district. Do the things you need to do to get reelected. But when there is a close vote on a bill that is really important to the leadership, we might ask you to put aside your other considerations—for the sake of our team.”

Some legislators do not play this game. They say, “I always vote my conscience. I never trade my vote.” Their position is admirable. But it often leaves them “off the team” and without much power to get anything important done.

Speaker Hastert would say that he would never pressure anyone to vote against his conscience. He would probably never have pressed Hayes to change his vote had he not had to have that vote to pass an important bill.

When Hastert told Hayes that he “really needed” his vote, Hayes knew that his leader was in trouble. He knew that if he did not help, his leader was going to lose an important contest. So Hayes had to balance his “team” responsibilities against the political consequences of an unpopular switch in his position.

If Hayes lost ground in his district because of his decision, he surely gained in his relationship with Hastert. It will make a difference when Hayes asks Hastert to help him—with a committee assignment or help on something that is important for his district. Any legislator will tell you that it is a good thing to be on the good side of the speaker or the majority leader.

The same considerations apply in North Carolina. During the closing days of the North Carolina legislative session, there will be other legislators who, like Hayes, will be changing their votes on important matters when the House Speaker or the Senate Majority Leaders comes to them and says, “This time I really need your vote.”


D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries” a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina’s interstate highways—available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (August 7) guest is Peter Perret, author of “A Well Tempered Mind.”

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs, all at 5pm, Sundays on UNC-TV:

August 7 Peter Perret A Well Tempered Mind

August 14 Timothy Tyson Blood Done Sign My Name

August 21 Moreton Neal Remembering Bill Neal

August 28 Quinn Dalton Bulletproof Girl

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How legislatures work - a lesson from congressman Hayes
Congressman Robin Hayes

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