It’s not an original observation to compare the Georgia General Assembly to a fraternity house, but it’s still an accurate one.
When the guys in charge of the Legislature gather in January to convene a new session, many of them act like a bunch of fraternity brothers who are blowing off steam at a keg party.
Vestiges of fraternity behavior are always in evidence. One example is the way freshmen legislators are hazed by the veterans when they make their first attempt to pass a bill on the House or Senate floor – just like nervous pledges trying to survive initiation.
Sticking with the fraternity kegger theme, there are incidents every session where lawmakers indulge too deeply in alcohol or get too friendly with some of the female interns and wind up with either a DUI arrest or a divorce (or both). They’re always fighting for the right to party.
The leadership squabble splitting the State Senate this session is like a double-secret fraternity meeting where the brothers can’t agree on whether to admit someone to the pledge class. Half of the brothers want to blackball the student while the other half want him to join, and a ferocious argument breaks out because the two sides can’t come to an agreement.
In this case, you had a number of Republican senators who were angry at Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle because of the hard-nosed tactics he used to get a hospital bed tax adopted last session. Two of the GOP leaders, President Pro Tem Tommie Williams and Majority Leader Chip Rogers, saw an opportunity to take away some of Cagle’s powers and use them for their own purposes (such as getting more favors from lobbyists).
The Williams-Rogers faction in the Republican caucus voted to pass new rules that stripped Cagle of much of his authority over Senate matters, especially the appointment of committee chairmen. Those powers were transferred to a “committee on assignments” controlled by Rogers and Williams. Cagle was steamed by the takeover, but decided not to fight the other side openly.
“Often times, things like this have a way of crashing under their own weight,” Cagle told reporters during the first week of the session. He implied that he would wait for the “committee on assignments” to start cracking up.
That crackup became publicly visible last week when a change in the Senate rules was proposed by Sen. George Hooks, a Democratic veteran. This rule change, if enough Republicans joined with Democrats to vote for it, could have cleared the way for Cagle to regain his powers. Hooks’ proposal triggered a floor fight and angry meetings of Republican senators behind closed doors at the capitol.
By week’s end, Williams and Rogers had managed to hang on to control of the Senate, but it was obvious that Cagle was making inroads among Republican senators, especially the freshmen. Some of the Republicans who decided early to go along with the power shift to Rogers and Williams are now having second thoughts.
The in-fighting among GOP senators has made it difficult for the Legislature to resolve the major issues that are still hanging out there with only three working days left in the session. House Speaker David Ralston complained that it was impossible to negotiate with 36 individual Republican senators on such complicated matters — it would be much more workable, he contended, if one person was speaking for the Senate.
“We have come perilously close to their little experiment over there harming the people of Georgia,” Ralston said. “They need to resolve their leadership issue and resolve it quickly.”
What’s at stake here? There is an $18.2 billion state budget that must be finalized. There is a major revision of the state’s tax system that has not been completed. There are still bills on the table dealing with Sunday sales of alcohol, immigration control, and prescription drug monitoring.
Unless the “brothers” in the Senate can stop fighting and engage in a coherent discussion of these issues, they could remain undone when the final day of the session – now scheduled for April 14 – arrives.
By the time this is all over, there are many of us who will be ready to tap a keg and have a drink.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.