Published Monday, December 24, 2012
Column by Walter C. Jones
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – The first days of a new two-year term of the legislature seem pointless to most observers, but they couldn't be more important to the politicians.
To the outsider, daily sessions that only include a sermon and the honoring of beauty queens and high-school champions look like a waste of time. That's because the really important action takes place within closed doors, namely the committee assignments and organization of each panel.
First is selection of the chair for each, and of course some committees are more desirable to chair than others. The right chairmanships come with larger offices and more staff, not to mention possible power over critical legislation. A lessor committee may be so unimportant as to never even meet.
Among the plums are appropriations, ways and means, judiciary and education. Those handle the majority of the 3,000 bills that will be introduced over the next 24 months and determine most of the critical issues.
One of the biggest prizes is the rules committee the graveyard of many controversial measures. Since every bill must pass through it, the chairman gets plenty of leverage to demand good treatment of his own bills as they're considered by other committees.
Last week, Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, pulled back the curtain a little to expose some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering when she took her lobbying for the Senate Rules Committee public. In a two-page letter obtained by Morris News Service, she argued she deserved consideration because of her loyalty, experience and because putting a woman in such a key spot won't do the Republican Party any harm in future campaigns.
Loyalty may be a critical factor. She stuck by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle during the last two years when eight senators convinced their colleagues to strip him of most of his powers. And she played a role in restoring those powers when the Senate Republican Caucus hashed out its bylaws in post-election meetings in McRae and Athens.
"I have done this with great personal sacrifice involving many personal hours, asking for nothing in return except for the caucus to be successful." Unterman wrote.
Cagle, who isn't commenting on the selection of any chairmen yet, has to share the choice with the committee on assignments, but its members are all his allies.
Other than Unterman, the other most mentioned pick is Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, another loyal Cagle supporter. The options are more than between their obvious gender difference. She's from metro Atlanta; he's from rural North Georgia. Her background is nursing; his is economic development. She's more reserved; he's more gregarious.
Turnover caused by redistricting means many committees in the House and Senate will get new chairmen, forcing Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston to weigh dozens of similar personnel alternatives.
The same thing happens in Congress, and U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., shed some light on the process earlier this month in a comment that raised eyebrows as much for its candor as for its salty language. The Sharpsburg resident and former state House minority leader now sits on the Steering Committee the makes assignments in the U.S. House.
He told CQ Roll Call how he tried to explain in a caucus meeting why four Tea Party Republicans were removed from their key committee posts, a fate similar to his own loss of a deputy-whip position in 2006 as a freshman.
"What I tried to explain to them was, it didn't have anything to do with your voting record, a scorecard, your work across the street (where the GOP does fundraising) or anything else," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "It had to do with your ability to work within the system and to try to work and to be, I guess, constructive in things. And I said, 'I guess you could say it was an a-----e factor',"
"Now I wasn't calling any member in particular an a-----e, I was just trying to describe an environment where some people that you're trying to work with, they just don't want to work within the system."
He later said he should have used the term "obstinate factor."
Cagle and Ralston, like any coach, can't ignore the personal chemistry between teammates when making assignments.
The politicians getting elected in the last couple of elections have been especially strident, and some have already expressed dismay at perceived slights by leaders they contend are too quick to compromise. They are bracing for the next wave of hurt feelings as they await the latest assignments.
Some will wear as a badge of honor their lack of status, for that is their last refuge when their proposals fail to advance. But their constituents may not realize that in electing inflexible legislators they are condemning their districts to limited relevancy in an arena where compromise is the only path to achievement -- even in a body like the Georgia General Assembly that is dominated by a majority from the same conservative, political philosophy.
For observers of the next three weeks, there is little to see on the surface despite monumental currents below. In many ways, the assignments, when they are finally announced, will do much to determine the course of the rest of the next two years, making them worth waiting to hear.
Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998.