Josh McKoon: Politics, transparency and time

August 30, 2013 

Does anyone remember the commercial in the '80s -- "Time to make the Donuts?"

Day after day, the same man does the same job, over and over and over again. After being in Georgia's General Assembly for the past three sessions, sadly, I can relate. Unfortunately, in our case, we are not dealing with donuts.

Otto von Bismarck once famously compared legislating to sausage making. While we can never entirely get away from some of the "sausage making," there are several ways that the legislative process in our General Assembly can be improved.

As a state senator, I have found many things wrong with our system of crafting public policy during my time in the legislature. However, I find that the single greatest obstacle to a transparent legislative process is the way Conference Committee reports are handled. For those of you not informed on the Conference Committee process, it goes something like this: If the House and Senate cannot agree on a bill, then leadership appoints a Conference Committee (usually made up of three people from each chamber) to meet, in hopes that a compromise can be made. Once an agreement is met, the conferees present a report to all members of the assembly for review.

While Conference Committees are a great way to compromise, they are also a great way to largely impact legislation without members of the General Assembly or the public even realizing it. Many are surprised to learn that, at times, we are given only 60 minutes to read, understand and decide how to vote on a piece of legislation once the report hits our desks. If members are given only 60 minutes, in certain circumstances, before voting on the issue -- imagine the opportunity, or lack thereof, for the public to be heard. Not to mention, many times, the bill that was originally vetted through the "process" may be completely different in the final draft. For example, one Conference Report we received addressing fishing licenses included a provision that made a significant change to Georgia's ethics law. And while I do enjoy fishing, I don't see how it is any relation to ethics.

While these meetings are subject to Georgia's Sunshine Laws, meaning they should be open to the public, they are often held with very little notice and, more times than not, in a mystery location. Conference Committees are very important, and as you can imagine, this is often where the legislative rubber meets the road. The public certainly has a right to know what happens during that process leading to the final conference report.

Many of you will recall when Congress acted on Obamacare, one of the chief complaints was that members did not even have 24 hours to read the 2,000-plus-page bill. Speaker Pelosi then made her famous remarks about passing the bill to find out what it contained. In essence, this is how bad legislation becomes bad law.

So now that I have thrown out my concerns, how do we address the problem? There are two simple changes that can make a positive difference.

First, require that all Conference Committee reports be filed by close of business on the 39th legislative day. Since there is normally a day off prior to the 40th legislative day, this would provide members of the General Assembly and the public at large at least 24 hours to review, digest, understand and react to changes contained within Conference Committee reports.

Second, require that notification of the time, place and location of Conference Committee meetings be posted publicly on the General Assembly website 24 hours prior to meeting. Both of these changes could be achieved by passage of an amendment to existing rules next year or could be included in the rules adopted for the 2015-16 biennial of the Georgia General Assembly.

Taking these steps will create some inconvenience for those using Conference Committees to "tack" additional legislation to a bill. Sometimes that maneuver is necessary; after all, the way the system stands now, one person has the capability of blocking a piece of legislation, good or bad. But the benefit of transparency in the process is well worth this minor cost.

This step will also help keep the mystery meetings at bay. Moving in this direction will not make the game of politics nearly as much fun.

But this isn't a game. It isn't a donut or a sausage. It is the well-being of our state and its citizens.

While I don't harbor any illusions that these reforms will be welcomed overnight, I do believe that our leaders are reasonable enough to see that a process like this one is not a good one. With any longstanding institution comes the inevitable, "we have always done it this way." Being from the South, I understand tradition and, for the most part, I like it. But I also understand that just because we have "always done it this way" doesn't make it the right way.

Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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