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11 December 2009

Making The Georgia House More Open, Transparent and Democratic

With the House Republican majority engaged in an important debate on how to restore public confidence in the Georgia General Assembly, now is as good a time as any to propose just a few ideas on how to reform the state House in an attempt to make that body more open, transparent and democratic.

Repeal House Rule 7.3 which bans the news media from the floor of the chamber while the House is in session.

Two years ago, in what can only be described as a vindictive action after news outlets continued investigating allegations of ethics improprieties [Peterson, Larry (2007-3-25). It's your money, but so what?. Savannah Morning News. Retrieved on 2009-12-11.], House Speaker Glenn Richardson pushed through a rule change that banned reporters from the chamber while legislators are in session [Bluestein, Greg. Ga., Kan. join states limiting media access to lawmakers. The Gainesville Times. Retrieved on 2009-12-11.].

The move was decried by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation as "another effort to impede public access to government proceedings."

Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation said, "By limiting the flow of information to the public, this is a step backward."

If the GOP majority is indeed sincere about restoring the public's confidence in the state House, they will repeal Rule 7.3 and let the sun shine in a little more on the chamber's proceedings.

Amend Rules 11.1, 11.3, 11.8 and 12.6 to abolish the "hawks" system.

In 2005, when the Republicans took control of the Georgia House, they instituted a new system of "hawks" that were ex-officio members of all committees. The role of the hawks were to swoop in and vote up or down bills as the Speaker desired.

A 2008 article appearing in the Yale Law Journal said the Georgia state House hawks "centralizes power in the hands of one legislator while depriving other members of the power and value of their committee votes."

"The rule creates a major incentive to bargain with, and only with, the Speaker of the House. Since Hawks serve at the pleasure of the Speaker, he can dispatch them to any committee to alter the vote. His decision to send in a Hawk, especially where there is a close vote, has the effect of undoing any bargains that were predicated upon the outcome of a committee vote. Because legislators are aware that committee votes will eventually reflect the policy preferences of the Speaker, there may be little incentive to bargain with committee members at all," the article read [Kamal Ghali, A Procedural Rule and a Substantive Problem: Rule 11.8, Legislative Hawks, and the Concentration of Power in Georgia’s Speaker of the House, 117 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 210 (2008),].

Frankly, if a piece of legislation isn't supported by a majority of the majority in committee, then that proposal probably isn't a good idea. The hawks were a bad idea when first instituted in 2005 and the hawks are a bad idea now. Either Republicans abolish the hawks now or expect the Democrats to make it a campaign issue during the 2010 elections.

Establish the principle of "one man, one vote" on the Committee on Assignments.

Officially, the Committee on Assignments decides which committees members of the Georgia House serve on. In practice, however, it is the Speaker that has the final say.

Rule 12.3 gives the Speaker 3 votes on the Committee on Assignments; the Majority Leader receives 2 votes; each additional member has just one vote; and in cases of a tie, the Speaker gets one extra tie-breaking vote. Just how does that arrangment adhere to the principle of one man, one vote? The answer is it doesn't.

Here's a new idea for the Committee on Assignments:

  • Give every committee member just one vote;
  • Provide that the committee composition be made up of the Speaker, Majority Leader, Minority Leader and two additional members appointed by the Speaker; and
  • Repeal Rule 12.5 which allows the Speaker to veto any action by Committee on Assignments.
The above are just some ideas one Democrat has to reform the House.

Take it or leave it.