Legislating is a team sport that tramples solo players

Sometimes good bills get killed for political reasons.
That’s the view of freshman Rep. Jason Spencer who sponsored legislation to install heart defibrillators in every public school at the cost of $1.5 million. He believes it was killed because he voted against the leadership on the charter-school amendment.
He also lost funding to a technical college in his area and consequently cast one of the few “no” votes on the state budget, adding to his status as an outcast.
“I was somewhat bewildered why it was stripped from the budget,” he said.
This comes a year after he was lumped into the same district with another Republican dubbed persona non grata by the leadership, Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross. The duo’s efforts to propose an alternative map that unpaired them died last year when no one on the redistricting committee would make that motion on their behalf.

Hatfield solved it himself by running for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Greg Goggans, R-Douglas.

Hatfield has been a burr under the saddle of Republican leaders for years by asking inconvenient questions during debate and having the temerity to vote his own way on too many bills, often “no.” Some observers say he has assumed the mantle of the late Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta, who was frequently the lone dissenter on bills his entire time in office.

What Franklin and Hatfield learned, and what Spencer is discovering, is that voting against everyone else’s bills makes them inclined to return the favor. It makes for a lonely existence and a difficult explanation to give to constituents who ask an outcast why none of his bills ever come up for a vote.

Spencer’s defibrillator bill ran into no opposition to its merits. Instead, medical professionals readily offered testimony of the potential to save lives, especially of otherwise healthy, young people who could bounce back from an irregular heartbeat if given an electric jolt at the critical instant.

He had other bills that made no headway. One would have further relaxed the state’s restrictions on people living aboard boats in marinas; another would have ended the requirement for a permit in order to carry a concealed weapon. A third would have required welfare recipients to take drug tests, a proposal that progressed in the form of a bill offered by a Senate freshman while Spencer’s languished.

Spencer said he hasn’t received any indication that he’s been declared a pain in the neck by the leadership, but his primary challenger is spreading that message.

Other Republican freshmen elected the same time as Spencer, such as Rep. Alex Atwood, from nearby Brunswick, passed multiple bills the last two years.

Spencer isn’t the only newbie getting what seems to be his ears boxed by higher ups. Across the Capitol, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, agreed to sponsor ethics legislation when the coalition of Tea Party groups and liberal watchdog organizations like Common Cause and League of Women Voters could find no other Republican to do it.

If he wondered why no veteran lawmakers were willing to walk the plank, he didn’t hesitate long.

McKoon’s bill would have prohibited lobbyists from giving officeholders or their staff anything of value, not even a cup of coffee. He immediately became the subject of media interviews around the state since that’s a stance reporters generally favor, but winning friends in the Fourth Estate doesn’t equate to esteem in the Senate leadership.

His bill first got watered down to merely a special committee to study the matter, to be made up of citizens and legislators, including McKoon. The legislature has a long tradition of creating study committees to pay lip service to issues it doesn’t want to tackle, and custom dictates that the author of the proposal gets to serve on the committee to save face among supporters while accomplishing essentially nothing.

Then the Senate Rules Committee removed McKoon and the citizens from the committee, leaving only members of the leadership to study a notion they already reject.

McKoon got three bills passed and signed into law last year but just one this year out of 21 introduced in the two-year term. Compare McKoon’s 2011 record to other freshmen Republicans in the Senate like William Ligon of Brunswick who only got two bills to the governor’s desk in two years or John Albers of Roswell who got none.

McKoon was clearly on a fast track last year before introducing his ethics bill and evidently on a sidetrack this year.

All freshman come to the Capitol wanting to advance their ideals and represent their neighbors back home. Most also want to rise in leadership or win higher office, if not just for ego then also to better advance those ideals. The question is how they react when their ideals clash with their planned career path.

Some decide that a compromise here or there for the sake of career advancement is justified. Those like Spencer and McKoon who refuse to bend may be proud of their steadfastness but pay a price in effectiveness.

Idealists would like to believe that every bill is debated on its merits. In reality, the vast majority of the 300 statewide bills passed this year passed with near unanimous support after no real debate once they get out of committee. Historically, all legislators vote alike on the floor 70-80 percent of the time regardless of party.

It’s in committee where the fate of most bills hang. That’s where a chairman acting on instructions from the leadership can decide not to call a measure up for a vote, where amendments can easily gut it or a handful of miffed legislators can find a reason why “now is not the right time” for a given proposal.

Everyone knows that legislation is a team sport. Politicians who aren’t loyal to a team have no team loyal to them.

One member of the General Assembly is a declared independent, Rep. Rusty Kidd of Milledgeville. Despite being the son of the legendary “Silver Fox” Sen. Culver Kidd and having spent a career as a professional lobbyist who is more adept at the legislative processes than most veterans, Kidd only got one bill to the governor’s desk out of 19 introduced — a batting average worse than most GOP freshmen.

Voters who think there are already ample laws may prefer legislators who hold principle above ambition, but they shouldn’t be surprised if the bill they do want passed goes nowhere when these uncompromising representatives introduce it.

(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)



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