RALEIGH — The tug of war over whether North Carolina’s GOP-led legislature can subject the new Democratic governor’s Cabinet secretaries to confirmation intensified Thursday when senators agreed to subpoena a department head who repeatedly failed to appear before a committee.
The Senate panel voted along party lines to compel Gov. Roy Cooper’s military and veterans’ affairs chief to appear next week to testify. The decision came after Secretary Larry Hall didn’t show for three recent confirmation hearings, the latest Wednesday and Thursday.
Each time, in a scene made for TV cameras, a chair sat empty below a table with Hall’s name on a placard.
Republicans passed a law two weeks before Cooper took office Jan. 1 subjecting his Cabinet to the “advice and consent” of a majority of the Senate, citing a provision in the state Constitution. Cooper sued to overturn it, saying that language doesn’t apply to his Cabinet. Cabinet confirmations haven’t occurred in at least several decades.
“We must take absolute action to make sure that we do not lose that authority given us by the people and the Constitution,” said Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine in supporting the subpoena. “He has shown disrespect to this committee and to our processes.”
A three-judge panel declined last week to block enforcement of the law until an expected trial next month. But Cooper and GOP lawmakers disagree over whether that ruling signifies that hearings can’t go forward.
It wasn’t clear Thursday whether Hall would comply with the subpoena to show up before the Senate commerce committee March 2, just five days before the trial. A statement by Cooper’s spokesman bypassed the question and praised Hall’s credentials.
“It’s disappointing that this committee, which has ignored the findings of a court order by meeting prematurely, would engage in this political charade,” spokesman Jamal Little said.
Cooper and his allies point to portions of the order that read the “advice and consent” can’t begin until he’s formally submitted the names to the Senate. He’s not done so though he’s already publicly named eight of his 10 Cabinet members. They’ve been sworn in and begun performing their duties. The order mentions a May 15 deadline for the submissions.
“We need to respect that decision until that decision is changed or modified,” Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham told the committee.
But Republicans said the deadline doesn’t apply to the Cabinet members because Cooper filled vacancies after GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration ended and while the legislature wasn’t in session.
“We can hold a confirmation hearing and it doesn’t conflict with any order of the court,” said Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg.
The debate before the subpoena vote got testy as Democrats blamed Republicans for creating the problem with hastily approved legislation in December.
GOP lawmakers passed several provisions during the surprise special session that reduce or check the incoming governor’s powers. Cooper, who defeated McCrory in November by only 10,000 votes, has sued Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore over many of the limits placed on him. They have also butted heads over attempts to repeal a law last March that limited LGBT rights and directed which public bathrooms transgender people can use.
Berger, who planned to authorize the committee’s subpoena, said Cooper has made the confirmation process harder than it needed to be. Berger said before the committee meeting that the governor’s secretaries generally appeared qualified. The public, he said, deserves to know whether the choices are without conflicts of interest and are willing to follow the law.
“Believe me, that is not how we want this to go,” Berger said.