Yeah, what is this strange job you hired me to do for the last decade? Webster takes a shot at defining it, with the simple phrase “a proposer of laws.” OK, at heart, this is true. The only actual power you have as a state representative or senator is the right to introduce a bill or resolution in the General Assembly. No other official can do so — though there are a lot of us, 180 in the House and 56 in the Senate! Even governors must recruit “floor leaders” — members of the House or Senate who agree to pursue legislation the executive desires. In trade for this service, of course, some perks are offered, like office space in the Capitol building and better staff support, in addition to the distinction of being associated with the governor in this way.
Is that all? Actually, no. An assumed, yet very important extra power is each legislator’s right to vote “yea” or “nay” on bills and resolutions. Exercising this power, especially on contentious or dramatic matters, is the really high profile part of the job. Using it, you are supporting or opposing public policy ideas which, if they graduate to law, may impact the lives of all 10 million Georgians. Casting votes can, and should be, seen as a heavy responsibility.
Is this an ego trip? It can be for some, given that your decisions matter so significantly to so many people. I’ve seen a few legislators let power “go to their heads.” They became too pompous or self-important. Another way this ego issue matters is when citizens project such an image onto legislators. Mostly, this is a way of vilifying legislators who oppose some desired end. Sometimes, it’s done with a broad brush to tar all legislators. Viewing groups of officials as egotistical seems to be a common habit, and may be one of the reasons why legislatures as a whole never achieve the kind of approval ratings that individual officials can.
Some people misconstrue how a legislative vote should be used. There are folks who insist that your job is to vote for “what the people want, ”implying you should go with whichever side has the most folks contact you — like a poll should be taken on every issue! Then there are the folks who press you to toe the line of whatever interest group they belong to. These opinions usually come as a blast email, generated by a computer that plugs a name and address into an otherwise identical text from every member of the outfit. Increasing numbers of folks seem to like this arrangement, but I’m disappointed at how often they don’t know what’s in messages sent out under their name. Frequently, I think they’d be very surprised at the opinions they’ve associated themselves with! Then you have the fast-draw threat people. Their every message opens one of two ways: either that “my vote in the next election” hinges on this issue, or that they will “work to defeat you” if you don’t comply. I guess this approach may work with a few, but I think it loses more ground than it gains. I’ve known a fair number of legislators who take threats personally, and dig in even harder on the other side. I also wonder what kind of home life these habitual threat makers had as children…!
So, how is a legislative vote actually exercised? Well, Georgia is a representative democracy, which means that – ATTENTION, IMPORTANT OWNER SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS FOLLOW! – the most significant thing you get when electing a legislator is the quality (or lack thereof!) of that person’s wisdom and judgment. A phrase from the oath of office makes this crystal clear: “… on all questions and measures which may come before me, I will so conduct myself, as will, in my judgment, be most conducive to the interests and prosperity of this state.”
This arrangement is also the most practical. Consider this — even though computers and the Internet may someday be secure enough to allow direct participation by every citizen, do we each want to invest the time necessary to understand the hundreds of issues (pieces of legislation) that must be worked through every year?
Next week, we’ll find out if legislators actually do any work!
Doug Holt represents District 112 in the Georgia General Assembly. He is not seeking re-election.