Bring back the dialogue and debate
by Alan Powell on 12/16/2009

[ Editor’s note: the following guest column was contributed by Rep. Alan Powell (D-Hartwell). ]

The current problems in the Georgia House are really problems that go back for several years.

The General Assembly, especially the House of Representatives, was once considered “the people’s house.” We’ve ceased being that since the rules were changed and debate on the House floor was basically done away with.

There was a time when members of the House could freely debate and offer amendments to a bill that was up for consideration. If Speaker Tom Murphy said it once, he said it a hundred times: every House member has a right to be heard.

That’s not the case anymore. If you put a bill in, they can stifle it in committee with the speaker’s “hawks.” If your bill survives the hawks and makes it over to the Rules Committee, that committee can effectively cut off debate on a bill before it even gets on the calendar. This happens when the Rules Committee designates that a bill will come before the House under the “modified structured rule,” where only the Rules Committee can propose amendments to it, or under the “structured rule,” where no amendments at all can even be offered.

When a bill is structured that way before we even bring it up for a vote, there’s no opportunity for members to amend and perfect it. There’s no opportunity to ask questions about it. When your most important bill, the appropriations bill, doesn’t even stir up any debate, you have to ask: why?

If a bill gets through the committee process and makes it to the floor of the House, there ought to be a debate. That was the system we had for many years. We need to have it again.

This is not just a Democratic-Republican issue; this is an issue that is important to people in both parties, because debate has been stifled among all House members regardless of their party affiliation. No matter which party you’re a member of, there’s no respect for the process.

Many of my friends in the majority caucus have come to see what I mean. There is a lot of discussion going on right now in the majority caucus as to when and how the House will vote on a new speaker. I think they see how important it is to have the opportunity to debate and ask questions about how the leadership intends to run the House.

I would encourage my colleagues from both caucuses to change the rules back to allow dialogue and debate again. It ought to be a part of the selection process for the next speaker. I will support whatever candidate for speaker is willing to do that.

We’ve got one shot to get this done right. Let’s have dialogue and debate on the House floor once again. We’ve got to get back to being the people’s House.