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99 Chambers: Legislative (And Executives) Differences in the U.S.

North Carolina legislative building
Dave DeWitt
N.C. General Assembly

With the often overwhelming multi-month holiday time upon us, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge the one season that seems to extend longer than the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Christmas-Solstice-New Year's, marathon.

Election Season.

There is another election this week. It's on Saturday. And while chances are you will not be voting for the next governor of Louisiana, it has been quite a contentious race down in the Bayou.

The Gubernatorial run-off between John Bel Edwards (no relation to North Carolina's Johnny Reid Edwards) and David Vitter got us thinking (again) about all the differences among the states when it comes to governorships, legislative bodies and other political mechanisms.

As you gather around the table this holiday season, impress your friends and family with a bit of government trivia.

First, it's complex. With 50 states, there are really 50 different systems. Most states have part-time lawmakers; a few have full-time policymakers; and across the board their pay, term lengths, rules, and powers vary significantly.

Like the system of checks and balances at the federal level - with the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches - the state infrastructures try to do some of the same.

  • Even the names of legislative bodies vary. Like neighbors Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina, North Carolina has a "General Assembly." In Massachusetts, it is the General Court of the Commonwealth. In Montana, it is just the Legislature.
  • Every state in the U.S. has a bicameral legislature (two chambers), with the exception of Nebraska (unicameral). Thus, there are 99 chambers in the country. As for those 49 states with two governing bodies, it's usually a House and a Senate. North Carolina's General Assembly has a House (120 members) and a Senate (50 members).
  • The highest paid lawmakers are in California; ~$97,000/year (full-time), while part-time legislators in New Mexico make nothing. North Carolina's part-time lawmakers make almost $14,000/year; with per diem and other expenses it works out closer to $18,000/year.
  • There are a handful of full-time legislatures (roughly 11 states) and many more part time legislatures (the other 39, including North Carolina).
  • The best ratio of lawmaker-to-constituent is in New Hampshire where each member of the House represents about 3,000 people. The other end of the spectrum is in California, where each Senator represents roughly 750,000 people. In North Carolina, House members serve on average almost 80,000 constituents, while State Senators represent closer to 190,000 people.

Find other FAQs from the Old North State here.

  • The Virginia General Assembly is the oldest continuous lawmaking body in the New World. Virginia's first General Assembly (at the time called the Governor's Council) met at the state's first Capitol - in Jamestown - in 1619. Virginia's second capital city was Williamsburg. The Capitol moved there in 1699. After the Revolutionary War the lawmakers became known as the General Assembly and then in 1870, the Capitol moved again, to Richmond - where it remains today.
  • North Carolina's Capitol has also moved over the years. First selected to be Edenton, the Capital has been New Bern, Fayetteville, and, of course, Raleigh.
  • What other former capital cities were you aware of?

Just how does the process work? For a quick primer on the state's lawmaking, we turn to the NCGA website.

A lawmaker in either chamber can file a bill. Those proposals/measures/ideas/pieces of legislation are filed by the hundreds. Bills usually go to a committee (which one depends on what kind of proposal this is, and if there is money involved). There are committees on finance, education, Medicaid, judiciary, transportation, alcohol - and many more. Committees debate the merits, details, components of a bill.

Then, they go to the floor for consideration from the full chamber. Then, they go to the other chamber, where - if approved as is, they go on to the governor, or become law.

However, if a bill is approved in the Senate and goes over to the House, lawmakers there can change it. If its changes in the House, the proposal has to go back to the Senate. (A process some have called boring, arduous and slow low.) Eventually bills can advance to the Governor.

At the Executive Branch, Governors in the U.S. also have varying powers when it comes to legislative involvement, appointments, and breadth of executive orders. Governor Pat McCrory has veto power. In fact, all 50 State Executives have this tool. If a Governor doesn't like a bill he or she can strike it down. But there is a check/balance provision here. The North Carolina General Assembly can enact a veto-override - that requires a three-fifths vote (a relatively high bar) in both chambers, effectively to undo the Governor's action.

Here are some basics on Governor's power and authority. Veto power is not uniform. There is the pocket veto (keeping something from becoming law by not signing in) and the line-item veto (seen as a powerful political device at only a few Governors disposals). Neither the pocket or line-item veto is in McCrory's arsenal.

As for that up-coming race on Saturday here is an excerpt from a recent Salon piece:

Louisiana governors are among the most powerful in the country. The office has impressive constitutional authority, including the line-item veto and control over the state's capital construction budget (useful for commanding the loyalty of legislators eager to bring home pork to their districts). By tradition, however, Louisiana's governor is even stronger. As long as anyone can remember, the governor has ordained the House speaker and Senate president, although no law or resolution allows it. For generations, legislative leaders have essentially served as employees of the governor. Legislators even allow the governor to select their committee chairs.

In addition to these elected officials, there are the lobbyists - who have significant influence over what bills move forward, how they're written, re-written, and produced. And as they say in politics, the first job of any incumbent is to get re-elected.

It is all certainly much more layered than the basics laid out above. But hopefully you're still reading, have captured some interesting facts for those upcoming holiday conversations, and are not subsequently sequestered to the kids table next Thursday.

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