MINOT, N.D. — It's been a busy week for North Dakota political nerds, what with the Legislature in special session.
The fractures in the NDGOP were high visibility during at the session this week. There was the big anti-vaccine rally on day one, after which attendees flooded into the capitol building to shout rude things at lawmakers. That wing of the party is feeling ascendant, and the more traditional Republicans are feeling discouraged. That latter feeling was apparent in the retirement speech delivered on the Senate floor by Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, who cited the toxic political environment in her decision to go.
Poolman's speech is also the first question for this week's mailbag. If you'd like to send me correspondence for the mailbag, email it to email@example.com. Your submissions may be lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Kevin writes: "Just a quick note to say thank you for the Sen. Poolman piece. Having clear-headed, humble, and civic-minded leaders in all walks of life is so critical - doubly so for those in the public eye. Ha, I made it 47 years without emailing a journalist - streak broken."
Don added: "She's a classy, unselfish lady."
Here's my column about the speech, and I'll embed the short video here if you haven't watched it yet.
When the average American thinks of politics, they tend to think of hot-button issues. Stuff like abortion or gay rights. Or, more recently, things like vaccines and critical race theory.
Those debates are important, don't get me wrong, but we tend to forget that much service in elected office is about making extremely consequential decisions about policies that form the largely unmentioned foundations of our society. No sewage treatment plant has ever been a hot-button topic unless it has begun to malfunction, at which point it becomes pretty important. Yet few are attending, or even talking about, the meetings at which the funding and construction of sewage plants are debated.
That's not to say that engaging on the ennui-inducing proceedings of public sewage plant construction is some new litmus test for citizenship. Only that most of the business elected local and state-level leaders like Sen. Poolman do is simultaneously vital and largely ignored by the public.
So when a bunch of newly minted activists, hopped up on the overwrought and often factually challenged rhetoric of some talk radio host or professional organizer, invade a legislative committee room and start blustering about "we the people," perhaps the people working in that room might be excused some eye rolls.
Not that Sen. Poolman, specifically, was ever the sort to roll eyes. But perhaps we could have forgiven her if she did.
The deliberation and process that goes into governing even a small, rural state like ours are more vast and complicated than most in the public suspect. Every small-town bar in North Dakota has a couple of people sitting on stools having some version of the "you know what they oughta do" conversation, and usually neither of the participants could name which lawmakers represent them off the top of their head.
My point is that serving in elected office, particularly in local elected office, is a Sisyphean endeavor that's a bit like being an umpire. It's a job as thankless as it is necessary. Your good work usually goes unnoticed, while your mistakes are magnified.
I'm all for holding the people in government accountable - I've made a career doing it - but there are times when it's appropriate to reflect on what their job is like.
Sen. Poolman's retirement just such a moment for me. I hope it was for others as well.
Colin writes: "Read your column on Legacy Fund and Budget Stabilization Advisory Board and (chairman) Rep. Keith Kempenich’s interview. I couldn’t help but remember the old TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. I cannot decide if Rep Kempenich is (painfully incompetent) Sergeant Schultz whose tag line was 'I KNOW NOTHING!' or is he (arrogant and conceited) Colonel Klink who was completely unaware of the activities of the POWs happening right under his nose. Tragically this show didn’t manage billions of dollars of other people’s money."
If you haven't watched the KXNews interview with Rep. Kempenich, you should.
It's ... really something.
The problems we're facing with the Legacy Fund have everything to do with a fight between elected officials, entrenched private consultants, and recalcitrant bureaucrats.
The interview with Kempenich focused on some of the deeply troubling investments made with Legacy Fund dollars into companies that are puppets for the Chinese communists in their oppressive, censorious machinations. Kempenich tried to claim these investments don't even exist, yet they clearly do.
But that's just a facet of a larger power struggle. Our lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to create an in-state investment program during the regular session earlier this year, despite a heavy lobbying effort to kill the bill from the aforementioned entrenched interests and stubborn bureaucrats. Now that the program is law, the consultants and the bureaucrats are sandbagging it.
Who is really in charge? We're going to find out, it seems.
This food fight over Legacy Fund investments is endemic to a larger problem in North Dakota government, which is an addiction our state leaders have consultants.
Perry writes: "Hey Rob, just want to tell you how much I appreciated your article on Rep. Rick Becker’s hypocrisy with the PPP loans. No doubt his restaurant was financially damaged, but I question if his other business was. Therein lies the problem with the program. There was zero verification if a business was actually hurt by the pandemic. Had our ‘business genius’ President implemented or even suggested a formula similar to a Business Interruption/Loss insurance policy, the government could have avoided paying millions to businesses that were unaffected. I know of several businesses that had a record profit/sales year (they told me personally), but got PPP ‘loans’ … gifts. Yet they’re unwilling to recognize this as the socialism they claim to hate. As to the Let’s Go Brandon crap, it’s as sophomoric and sad. I guess that’s what some people mean by making America great."
Nothing makes America great like focusing our national political debate over childish chants.
Of the many economic interventions made by the government during the pandemic, I thought the PPP loans weren't that bad. They were loans (although most of them have been forgiven) and they were aimed at keeping people in their jobs, with all their pay and benefits intact, which in my mind was better than seeing them unemployed and a burden on other government programs.
From that perspective, I don't blame Becker for taking some loans for his businesses. The loan that went straight to his pocket is a bit harder to countenance, and we also can't forget Becker's strident and doctrinaire ideology. He consistently rails against "big government," but seemingly has no problems cashing checks from Uncle Sam.
But beyond that, we can't ignore that Becker pushed a bill during this week's special session that would have used North Dakota's tax code as leverage against businesses issuing a vaccine mandate. Can you imagine what Becker would say if the Biden administration pushed a policy requiring a vaccine mandate from every employer who took a PPP loan?
I respect people with conviction, and unfortunately, that's not people like Becker.
Dan writes: "You no doubt know that our “fearless leader” Rep. Armstrong saw fit to vote No in the House on a bipartisan bill that had about 19 GOP votes in the Senate. Makes me wonder whether he is really committed to the interests of the state of North Dakota, or is he in thrall to folks like Kevin McCarthy who probably doesn’t give a good GD about anything that isn’t Trumpian obeisance or his path to the speakership of the House. Just wait until the NDDOT starts allocating that money. Armstrong will be demanding a good tranche for Dickinson and will show up at every event related to new infrastructure saluting the importance of his influence in Congress.
I think this email is emblematic how complex politics can be.
When this infrastructure bill was before their chamber, both Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer voted for it. Now Armstrong has voted against it. Believe it or not, those positions can be reconciled.
In the Senate, Republicans have an interest in holding off a far larger spending bill Democrats have been pushing. That proposal has been trimmed down since, but back when the Senate took its vote it was north of $3 trillion. The only bulwark Senate Republicans had against that much more profligate bill was opposition from Democratic Sens. Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin. Both of those senators were in favor of the smaller infrastructure bill. The Senate Republicans saw value in voting for the smaller bill, even though it still had a lot of waste, as a way of giving Sinema and Manchin more room to oppose the larger bill.
That is an entirely defensible calculation. But in the House, the dynamics are different. The Democrats have a simple majority in the House, and can pass whatever they want. Armstrong has no impetus to cut deals with the Democratic majority, and can still stand on principle.
But even then, there is no doubt still spending in that bill on things like roads and bridges that Armstrong agrees with. He can certainly tout that spending, even though he voted against the spending bill it was included in because it was too large and contained too many other objectionable things.
We could solve this problem if Congress would quit trying to ram through controversial spending and policies by sliding them into bills with far more popular initiatives, but since Congress isn't going to do that, it's on us to take the time to understand the nuances behind these bills.
As far as I'm concerned, Sens. Cramer and Hoeven were right to vote for this bill, and Armstrong was right to vote against it.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.