DOUG HOLT: Inefficiency may be a virtue in the legislature

Time to wrap things up! I hope I’ve entertained you, and given you a raised eyebrow or two. Now let’s journey up to really high altitude and look at the biggest “big picture” question of our trip: why do we have a legislature?

Sure, we need a way to pass and change laws, but why such a curious institution? Maybe a look at the low opinion most folks have of legislatures can offer some insight. Laws that get passed are a good starting point. Do they make sense, or are they barking up the wrong tree? What else matters? Folks sure get upset about gridlock, so that has to count. Better yet, consider news stories about bills that couldn’t get a hearing, or bills being amended into other bills late at night? Voters often say “yuck!” about such maneuvers …

Speaking of taste, I’m reminded of an old saying: “Legislating is like making sausage: you might be pleased with the result, but you don’t wanna see it being made!” This hunk of wit decries the painful disconnect between legislative maneuvering and the idea that public service should be dignified. Double your dislike by watching the House from the gallery above the chamber: members are always on the move, no matter what’s going on. A friend put it best – “Y’all look like a fire ant nest poked with a stick!”

Opinions grow worse when lawmakers “misbehave.” Some are “soapbox climbers” no matter where they are, lusting after microphones like the proverbial moth to a flame – and sometimes getting the same result. Occasionally one comes down with a superiority complex, and wafts insufferably about, wholly focused on choosing among the delights of being pompous, lordly or condescending. Or, if possible, all three at once. Worst of all is the rare but mighty stinkbomb, a lawmaker who has become genuinely corrupt; and whose arrest, trial and conviction make front-page, paper-selling news. Misbehavior leads many folks to wonder, “If this one’s that bad, aren’t they all?”

Have we hit the bottom of the barrel yet? Are there more reasons why folks dislike legislatures? Sure thing: everyone knows legislatures are wasteful and inefficient. Milton Berle quipped that “a committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.” And what is a legislature but a committee writ ultra-large — a creature of committees stacked on top of committees. We give our most important spending and policy decisions to an outfit that seems to have only one speed setting: molasses. Are we touched in the head?

Drink all this in, and you’ve got to ask the question: “How did we end up with a legislature in the first place?” The knee-jerk response is “it’s tradition.” But we should give America’s founders a bit more credit than that. Sure, they knew the colonial legislatures inside and out, and well understood England’s Parliament. Even so, history tells us they saw their great experiment in self-government in clean slate terms. James Madison even did a deep analysis of how ancient democracies and republics, mainly those of Greece and Rome, had played out. He and the other founders wanted to draw the best from history to create their new government. Still, they clearly had legislatures in mind all along, though they doubtless knew every negative in our hit list above.

Why? Well, this outgoing legislator thinks it was specifically because of inefficiency! Able (and not so able) lawmakers burn their energies moving even the simplest of bills, sometimes directly, other times indirectly through intricate, ambitious and often exasperating gambits. Pontificating, pompous and corrupt legislators divert their efforts into their predilections, which, offensive or even quite wrong though they may be, end up having a relatively minimal impact on society itself (but eternal vigilance is always called for!). Most importantly, dramatic measures seeking to sweep away God-given rights will face a steep uphill climb. They can be spotted and brought to public attention by anyone, members or citizens. And they can be slowed and fought by even a few legislators, using creative and annoying tactics available at the many steps along the way.

Here’s the key: legislatures frustrate the power-hungry, and make it very difficult for a government to swiftly undermine the common man’s standing. Their very inefficiency is a powerful protection. The founders likely felt that wasted time and expense were worthwhile trade-offs, especially since their idea of necessary government tasks was quite limited, no more than an extremely stripped down version of our present day state and federal institutions. I’m sure they also understood that the many steps of the legislative process, as well as the many minds involved, would improve the crafting of laws, and increase buy-in of any that make it through.

Want to see the importance of legislatures another way? Look at the nations around the globe that enjoy rights and freedoms comparable to ours. Virtually all of them have strong legislatures. Our founders knew what they were doing!

So yes, our frequently slow, often exasperating, anachronistically formal and tradition-bound General Assembly is important – dramatically so! While it needs close vigilance on how deep it digs its hands into our pockets (and how much more so it’s federal cousin!), I firmly support its place in our common enterprise of self-government. Enlightened self-interest tells me this is really the only game in town. I’ve had a fascinating decade helping jostle it on its course, and I appreciate the trust you’ve extended to me for that task. Now I’ll join you at the polls as we select a new representative. I hope I’ve given you some useful insights for making that choice.

Doug Holt represents District 112 in the Georgia General Assembly. He is not seeking re-election in November.