Shut up and vote

Will GOP overkill give Dems a taste of their own medicine?

What else can you do but joke about your dire circumstances if you're one of the 102 put-upon Democratic lawmakers taking part in the GOP-run 2005 General Assembly?

During the first few days of the new legislative session, Democrats could be heard making light of their lackluster committee assignments, discussing rumors about desperate would-be party-switchers, and musing over the awkwardness of carrying boxes out of their old Capitol offices as Republicans moved in.

"I feel like we're the roadrunners and the Republicans are the coyotes," a minority-party legislator from DeKalb says of the cartoonish scenario. "The coyotes are all huddled together, looking over their shoulders and telling each other, 'I think we need more dynamite.'"

The dynamite he's referring to are new House and Senate rules that confronted Democrats on the Jan. 10 opening morning of the session. Joking aside, these provisions — designed to limit debate and prohibit amendments to certain bills — are no laughing matter.

Under the new rules, the GOP leadership has the ability to ban floor amendments for any bills coming out of committee, meaning most legislators will only be allowed to vote yea or nay and cannot suggest changes.

The process is called "engrossment," and it's actually been around for years. In the old days, if the Democratic majority wanted to protect pet legislation, they would engross a particular bill as soon as it was introduced so that it couldn't be watered down or gutted by Republicans.

The difference between then and now is that the new rules consolidate this power in the hands of a few top House and Senate leaders.

"This is not participatory government," complains one prominent Democratic senator who asked not to be named. "This is two or three people in the Republican leadership doing what they want, and everyone else has to take it."

The most alarming modification to the legislative process, however, came in the House, where newly crowned Speaker Glenn Richardson appointed three low-level GOP representatives to serve as "hawks." Their role is to swoop into any committee where Richardson feels his agenda is being thwarted and become temporary members — just long enough to vote the way he wants them to.

As one Democrat describes Richardson's move: "The deck was already stacked, but he dealt himself three wild cards."

The predatory nature of the freshly coined term "hawks" is not lost on the roadrunners, um, Democrats.

"The House rules are outrageous," says Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta. "There's no way you can spin this where it's not an abuse of power."

But even rank-and-file Republicans will have to deal with the gag-order nature of some of the new rules.

And if one or two top Republicans — namely Richardson and House Rules Chairman Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs — can control committee votes and squelch debate on the floor, some Democrats can be forgiven for wondering why they bothered to show up.

"If it was just a bunch of political hacks maneuvering around each other, that'd be one thing," says Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. "But a lot of these rule changes do injury to the institution and to the process of policy-making."

The new rules feel like overkill at a time when Republicans handily outnumber Democrats on the floors of both houses and in all important committees; Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor has been reduced to bystander status in the Senate, and House Minority Leader DuBose Porter is having trouble corralling his deeply divided party caucus.

But there's never been a shortage of irony in Georgia state politics, whether it be the moralizing of office-holders revealed to be adulterers or the self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives all too eager to haul home the pork.

Add to that list a Republican minority that has long complained about former Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy's iron fist and "King" Roy Barnes' imperious ways. Now in charge, the party has enacted rules that could make it seem as if the Gold Dome is doing double duty as a liberal interment camp.

"These guys make Roy Barnes look like a florist," Reed quips. "It's the same kind of overreaching that cost the Democrats so much support around the state."

It's a little difficult to see why such an overt power grab is necessary for a party that's been on such a roll for the past two years. Three recently re-elected rural Democrats switched parties immediately after Nov. 2. And if the 17 Democratic crossover votes to help elect Richardson as House speaker are any indication, there are plenty more GOP wannabes waiting for the right moment to defect.

In the meantime, many of those folks — who view the "D" behind their name as if its a target on their back — will be looking for more opportunities to suck up to the Republican leadership.

So why has a state GOP that swore up and down coming into the session that it would remain humble and fair decided to risk the bad PR that has come from adding an array of new procedural weapons to its already bulging political arsenal?

Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, a veteran moderate, explains that it's sometimes necessary to engross a bill so that it doesn't get mired down in partisan debate, slowing the wheels of government and allowing opponents to add in their own "poison pill" amendments to score political points.

But Millar says the mechanism, if overused, can hurt the deliberative process by preventing lawmakers from suggesting ways to improve legislation.

"I'm not big on engrossment because it stifles debate," he says. "But we'll watch and see how this all plays out."

And the new House hawks?

Ehrhart, now the second-most powerful member of the House, defends the hawks as no big departure from the days Speaker Murphy would send a flunky down to order a committee chairman to call a vote or adjourn a meeting that wasn't going the way he wanted.

"We've just done directly what used to happen indirectly," says Ehrhart, who, like Richardson, promises the new GOP-friendly rules will not be abused.

Murphy, however, acquired his considerable power the old-fashioned way: through political arm-twisting and sheer force of personality. He reigned supreme for a record 28 years as speaker by building alliances, cutting deals and punishing the disloyal. He didn't find it necessary to change the rules to keep opponents and his own party members in line.

That difference has led some Democrats to wonder how secure the supposedly rock-solid GOP consortium really is. When the General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 24 to tackle such knotty issues as tort reform, Medicaid cuts and education policy, we may find out.