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Reporter’s Notebook: Of Sausage Making and Sleep Deprivation


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Editor Rose Hoban contemplates the practice of making laws late in the evening.

By Rose Hoban

My mom says I’m a lot like my late dad: I have his heavy eyebrows (boo), his intellectual curiosity (yay) and, like Jack Hoban, I can sleep on a picket fence (double yay).

Also like my dad, I’m a mess if I can’t get enough sleep. And this week, I haven’t gotten enough sleep.

I blame the legislature.

This week was “crossover.” If your non-spending-related bill isn’t through one chamber by Thursday at midnight, there’s a good chance it’s dead for the next two years. So lawmakers end up piling the work and getting everything in just under the deadline – a little bit like reporters.

But the catch is, they’re not writing a story. They’re making our laws.

Legislators (and the reporters who cover them) were all in the General Assembly building late for three days this week, and back early each day following. On Wednesday, many of them started their days with committee meetings at 8 and 9., and then were in the floor session from early afternoon until after midnight.

The NC House of Representatives met late into the evening last night, debating the budget bill.

The N.C. House of Representatives met late into the evening Wednesday night to beat the “crossover” deadline. N.C. Health News file photo

House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) said he wanted to finish up during the Wednesday overnight session. So lawmakers were passing bills until well after 2 on Thursday morning.

In the press room, around midnight on Wednesday, we were punchy and a little cranky. I joked about using a blowgun with sedative darts to put the more long-winded legislators to sleep.

And if I, at 51, was tired this week, I don’t want to imagine the state of some of our legislators, many of whom are retirees in their 60s, 70s and some in their 80s.

So, after I woke up on Thursday, I put in a call to Brad Vaughn, who researches and treats sleep disorders at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Disclaimer: Vaughn wired me up and studied my sleep a few years ago. He called my sleep “beautiful.” Thanks, Dad.)

I asked Vaughn what happens to people who are sleep deprived.

“When we are deprived of sleep, we tend to be more irritable and remember more negative events,” said Vaughn, who also said sleep is key to peak performance.

We know sleep deprivation can be used as a form of torture. Research shows that if you keep people up long enough, healthy individuals show symptoms of psychosis similar to those observed in schizophrenia.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, insufficient sleep has been linked to poor management of a number of chronic diseases and conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression.

On the less extreme end, the National Institutes of Health says that “poor nighttime sleep contributes to depressed mood and attention and memory problems.”

Hey, wait a minute! Did they say “attention and memory problems”?

We sure witnessed it this week. Some lawmakers rambled. Many, many lawmakers pushed the wrong button (there are only two: one’s red, one’s green) when they went to vote. The number of requests to change votes increased as Wednesday evening wore on. You don’t think fatigue was part of that?

“When we pass bills like that, we get to the point where we’re not watching carefully, not reading carefully,” said Rep. Verla Insko (D-Chapel Hill). “We’re answering emails, multitasking, people are getting up and talking to others, and then they’re needing to change their votes on bills.

“That was because we weren’t really focusing or concentrating on what we were doing.”

Insko, who’s 79, said the adrenaline kicks in and she can run on five hours of sleep for a couple of days, but it generally catches up with her.

And it caught up with some other lawmakers, some of whom Insko said were “slap happy” by the wee hours of Thursday.

“It’s not a good way to make public policy,” she said. “And we make mistakes. Some are bigger than others.”

The example several people pointed to was that of Rep. Pat Hurley (R-Asheboro), who stood up sometime after 1 a.m. to offer an amendment on a bill to regulate the keeping of wild animals. She proceeded to break  into giggles.

“Everyone seemed to find it fabulously ridiculous,” said WRAL’s Mark Binker, who was in the building on something like his 16th hour of work. “We were roaring about small monkeys at 1 a.m.”

Binker was tired enough that his original story, posted at 1:48 a.m., included a description of the bill that “would include large cats like lions as well as lions.”

“Believe me, we didn’t have any copy editors up at that hour either,” he said on Thursday afternoon.

Many of the dozens of bills passed on Wednesday evening alone will need to have problems ironed out of them when they go to the Senate, where the pace will likely slow down.

That’s all well and good. But when I ponder that old trope comparing lawmaking to sausage making, I keep thinking: If I were that tired while making sausage, I’d cut off one of my fingers.

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