DOUG HOLT: What are legislative gambits?

If you’ve ever played chess, you know that an action taken to gain an advantage is called a gambit. Gambits exist in other fields of endeavor, many of which are not games, to include legislating. I’m going to acquaint you with some that I’ve seen. Many more exist. For the sake of convenience, I’ll give them names, but most of those names are just mine.

Dummy Bills – after a legislator officially submits a bill, the normal legislative process doesn’t make it available in committee until several legislative days have transpired. This can be a problem if you are even part way into the legislative session and have a new topic for a bill, and don’t want to attract attention. The solution is to submit bills in topic areas of potential interest at the beginning of the session. When you are ready with a new topic that falls in the same section of the state legal code as one of your dummy bills, you can begin committee work immediately by offering a substitute bill with new language. You can occasionally spot dummies by looking for bills that are short and nonsensical.

Catfish Amendments – sometimes a legislator who opposes a bill succeeds in getting an amendment made to it that, while sounding innocuous, actually defeats the entire purpose. These are referred to as catfish amendments because they “gut” the bill. I’ve only seen a few of these in my time, and they were accomplished by very skilled, insightful (opponents would say crafty) legislators.

Pull the Rug Out – this is a technique for defeating a bill in committee without exceeding the bounds of legislative courtesy. Legislators normally interact with a high degree of respect and decorum in any public venue. This is out of tradition, and out of the simple fact that if you cross another elected official publicly, you have made all of that person’s friends your enemies. Thus, in committee, you never see members make blatant attacks on a bill, it’s author or the issue. This sometimes allows bills out of committee based on courtesy, with members reserving their “no” for a House floor vote. However, occasionally I’ve seen a committee member ask questions in a way that reveals flaws in a bill, and signals to like-minded members that it either needs serious amendment or should go down — and the votes to do so suddenly materialize. While I’ve watched a number of folks attempt this gambit, there is only one master. He is a gentleman from South Georgia who has an absolute sixth sense for picking out flaws from the language of a bill, and who asks his questions with incredibly artful, utter deference, while simultaneously taking a bill apart and building his coalition for a vote. It has been a sometimes awe-inspiring treat to witness his exhibitions of skill. If, by some quirk of fate, I’m ever involved in a negotiation over a matter of great import, I want this guy on my side!

Emotional Testimony – you’ve seen this on TV, though more dramatically staged than the real thing. Have someone who has been affected by the problem your bill seeks to fix testify to the committee hearing the bill. This can be very powerful and sometimes attracts outside media attention, which can create public pressure in your support. It’s also a very respectful way of acknowledging difficulties your constituents have faced and may even be a little bit cathartic for them. Furthermore, such testimony can help engage committee members who had been sitting on the fence, or were even mildly opposed, giving them an interest in moving a solution forward.

Yes, If – sometimes contentious bills can take a while to work through the committee process. Even if you are not a member of the committee a bill is in, and thus can’t try to amend it during a hearing, you can still have an impact on it. Let the author know you’re willing to support the bill by talking with friends on the committee, as well as with an eventual floor vote, as long as he or she will work with you on parts of the bill you may have problems with.

Same Bill, Both Chambers – you can increase your chances of getting a bill passed if you can persuade a friend in the Senate to submit your idea over there. That way, if it gets bogged down in committee on one side of the General Assembly, it might make it to passage through the other. Then you get more time to work on the measure, hopefully learning how to address concerns that held it up on one side.

Skewer from the Floor – usually, if a bill has made it to the House floor, the odds are that it will pass. Once in a while, though, a member will get up to speak in opposition to a bill, and expertly lay out a critical flaw that no one else had picked up on — and the bill goes down. There are only a few legislators who can accomplish this, and they usually combine expert speaking skills with a highly credible reputation among most or all of the members.

Pressure Cooker – sometimes a legislator is trying to reach an accommodation between two interest groups, but both sides have been intractable. If the issue or the participants are high profile enough, you can invoke the prestige of the House and “invite” them both to come to the Capitol for a discussion. Many times such an effort does break the log jam, and a compromise is reached. This is customarily referred to as “locking ‘em in a room with a coffee pot and no bathroom.” It doesn’t really go that far, but the comic relief is usually needed!

Next week, let’s play psychologist: Have we lost our minds?

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