In a few weeks, in an ornate building in downtown Atlanta, a gavel will sound signaling the start of the 2008 session of the Georgia General Assembly. The gavel may have to be pounded several times due to what appears to be mass confusion. But the men and women for whom the gavel is sounded aren’t being disrespectful, they’re just being themselves: they are legislators.
Chaos is the norm in all legislative bodies, but it is an odd kind of chaos, one that produces results in the end. Not everybody is happy with the results, but that’s how it is in a representative government.
American legislative bodies, including the U.S. Congress, have, since our founding, been fodder for pundits such as H. L. Mencken, humorists such as Will Rogers and other assorted wags who have feasted on their foibles and mis-steps, of which there were many. But don’t be deceived by the criticism or the appearance of disorder. Legislators, especially in Georgia, know why they are there, who sent them and what their job is. Their job is to serve their constituents and work to make our state a better place to live and work.
I have been observing the Georgia Legislature for a long time and when I look back on some of the lighter moments, I have to smile. Who can forget the late Denmark Groover climbing over the gallery balcony, perching precariously so he could reach down and reset the clock, in an effort to give him and his fellow lawmakers a few more precious minutes before sine die. Denmark was one smart man, a top attorney, so I never knew if he was serious or if this was just a prank. I’m inclined to think the latter. Nonetheless, a picture of him suspended in mid-air, head first, later appeared in TIME Magazine.
There have been many serious moments under the Gold Dome, as well, some so steeped in the thinking of bygone eras that they seem insignificant today. Our legislature, like our state and region, evolved and matured and today’s breed of representatives and senators are smart, savvy, creative and resourceful. They are not all of one mind, as I know so well, but they are all open to new ideas and suggestions.
Legislatures are, after all, made up of human beings who can be emotional, stubborn and sometimes ornery. But they are our representatives. We elect them and they vote on our behalf. If we are unhappy with them, we get a chance every two years to turn them out.
My main conclusion after watching Georgia legislative sessions come and go is that we have been well served by the occupants of the two chambers. After all, this is the body that produced men such as Richard B. Russell, Sam Nunn, Paul Coverdell, Wyche Fowler and a peanut farmer from Sumter County who, despite great odds, went and got himself elected president of the United States.
And while these former state legislators achieved national and international prominence, they left behind Georgians of similar stature, character and ability, many of whom harbored no ambition to leave the Peach State for DC or anywhere else.
Who among us has not criticized the legislature at some time for something they did or did not do? That’s normal and they expect it. But there is a better way to be part of the legislative process. Take the time — in advance — to get familiar with bills and proposed laws so you can form an educated opinion. Then communicate your thoughts to your legislator in a serious and thoughtful way. Since we (fortunately) do not have government by plebiscite in America, it is up to your elected official to cast his or her vote for you.Tell them plainly how you think they should vote and why. If they disagree, they will most likely tell you and explain the differences. We never get our own way all of the time, but at least you will have registered your opinion.
A very articulate woman and a former member of the U.S. Congress, the late Barbara Jordan, said that the stakes are too high for government to be simply a spectator sport. That’s something the Georgia Chamber of Commerce practices every day and believes fervently. And it’s good advice for us all.
George Israel is president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.