At Georgia’s Capitol, The More Things Stay The Same, The More They Are Changing

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The headlines this week were all about the elections.  The real news this week in Georgia politics is that Georgia House Speaker David Ralston is dealing with a significant health issue, and has set in motion the process for House members to select his successor.

One would assume then that not much is changing in how things are done at the Capitol.  A Republican Governor will work with a Republican Lieutenant Governor and Speaker. Republicans have held their majorities in the House and Senate after redistricting.  Status Quo holds.

That observation works fine if your understanding of the legislative process stopped with lessons from “Schoolhouse Rock!”.  When you look closer, you’ll understand almost everything on the 3rd floor of the Capitol – that which contains the legislature – will be changing.

The Speaker’s office, by Constitution, House rules, and tradition, wields an outsized amount of power on the legislative process.  The Speaker decides committee chairpersons, and which committees will be assigned pieces of legislation.  A bill can be fast tracked or killed just by sending it to the right committee. 

Then there’s the role of committee chairs.  In a citizen legislature, committees are responsible for being experts on their subject matter.  There is an amazing amount of trust that legislators put on their chairs to ensure that the hundreds of pieces of legislation they vote on are understood by the experts in that Committee. 

Speakers like to choose their own committee chairs, even if they are close in philosophy to their successors.  As chairmen change, the personal relationships required to work legislation through the capitol becomes more uncertain until new comfort levels are established.

The House is also responsible for originating the state’s budget.  It’s a year-round process despite the legislature only meeting for 40 days.  This year, both Appropriations Chairman Terry England and the longtime director of the House Budget and Research Office Martha Wigton are retiring, so…more change in key positions.

The Senate is a bit more complicated than the House.  While the Lieutenant Governor presides over the Chamber, his power is given to him by the Senate Rules, generally decided upon by the Majority Caucus and then voted on by the full body. 

Though Republicans retain control of the Senate majority, the leadership will be changing.  There will be a new President Pro Tempore, Majority Leader, and Majority Whip.  This leadership team will decide on new committee chairs as well, with one major vacancy certain to be filled with a new member.

Because the Senate power structure is generally determined by a committee, the pivotal power position during the legislative session rests with the Rules Chairman.  This is the committee that decides if a bill will be passed on to the floor for consideration. 

The Rules Chair must have the total trust of the majority caucus in getting vetted bills to the floor, while sometimes being willing to be the “bad guy” to temporarily bottle up legislation as a negotiating tactic or hold it to kill it altogether.  We know for certainty this committee will also have a new leader, as Chairman Jeff Mullis from Chickamauga is also retiring from the legislature.

I have no doubt that the majority caucuses in the House and Senate will quickly choose able leaders to fill these roles over the next month.  The point here is that right now, no one knows who they’re really negotiating with in the legislature.  This matters, as again, legislation isn’t just made from mid-January until the Masters tees off.  Note the number of high profile legislative study committees completing their work this month or next.

You can expect some awkward moments as all of these new leaders get comfortable with their own new positions of power, and with working with each other.  This is natural in any organization with significant turnover.  It’s just that this much turnover at one time in legislature is unusual, and the learning curves will be very public.  Allow them a bit of grace as they settle in.

This brings us back to the Capitol’s 2nd floor, and the offices of the Governor.  Four years ago, it was the Governor’s team that were new, mostly outsiders, and took some time adjusting to the flow of the legislative process while learning who they could trust to get things done.  This year, they walk into the Capitol experienced and tenured while relieved of future re-election pressures.

The Governor always sets the tone and the agenda for the state.  This year, they’re also going to provide the steady hand while the legislature transitions into their next generation of leadership.

Add a Comment