In the Georgia Senate, the more things are changing, the more they are staying the same. This year’s election has brought us a new lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan. It also brought us a new president pro tempore, state Sen. Butch Miller of Gainesville. Miller assumed the role at the beginning of this year’s Georgia General Assembly after former President Pro Tem David Shafer resigned the position to run for lieutenant governor.
The president pro tem position, like the speaker of the house, is chosen by the majority caucus but is voted upon by the members of the entire chamber. The House, however, doesn’t also have a lieutenant governor also standing in the well. This is what makes the Senate unique, and its politics intriguing.
The Georgia Constitution is mostly silent when assigning duties to the lieutenant governor. Like the vice president of the United States, the lieutenant governor would assume the position of governor in the event that were necessary. In Georgia, the lieutenant governor has a more hands on role in the day to day operations of the Senate than the vice president, who usually only shows up for a State of the Union speech or if a tie vote is contemplated.
Most of the duties of the lieutenant governor are settled by the Senate’s rules. Like the election of the pro tempore, any successful changes to the rules are usually proposed by the majority party but then decided upon by the entire Senate.
This is where it got interesting under the last two lieutenant governor. When the Senate changed to Republican control after the election of Gov. Sonny Perdue, Mark Taylor, a Democrat, was lieutenant governor. Most of his powers over the chamber were stripped by the Republican majority.
When Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was elected, most of the powers were given back to the Republican ... until they weren’t. A couple of years into his tenure, several senators realized they had given up a certain amount of power in committee assignments and the path of legislation and they kind of missed it.
An ongoing internal power struggle between the Senate Republican Caucus and the lieutenant governor occurred over the next few years, with Cagle eventually retaining most of his original power. This includes the ability to direct legislation to favorable (or unfavorable) committees and sway over the Committee on Assignments, which appoints committee chairs.
Now that Cagle is being replaced by Duncan and Miller has a year of experience under his belt, there is new leadership in the chamber, and a chance to take a new look at the rules. Duncan – whose resume includes tenure as a member of the House rather than the Senate – remains an open question as to how he will lead a chamber that often resembles 56 independent contractors.
Thus, Republican senators met last week at the Biennial hosted by the Carl Vincent Institute at the University of Georgia. The closed door caucus meeting included a blunt discussion of whether Duncan should retain all of Cagle’s power or if the body needed to, at least initially, retain some of the powers of the body for themselves. In the end, a final unanimous vote as a sign of unity left the rules unchanged.
In Duncan’s favor was his choice of seasoned staff members. Chief of Staff Chip Lake is a seasoned political operative in both campaigns and a former chief to U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. His inclusion comforts tenured members who want to ensure that any learning curve is minimal.
Policy Director Mike Dudgeon is a former House Member who has the respect of policy wonks and movement conservatives alike. His inclusion also helps shore up the contra-establishment flank.
John Porter, as deputy chief of staff, is the former campaign manager from Karen Handel’s special election last summer. Toss in an understanding of the politics of the rapidly shifting north Atlanta suburbs and you get why the status quo on rules is preferable at this time.
Democrats just finished an impressive statewide election cycle where they picked up more than a handful of legislative seats, a seat in Congress, and were roughly 1 to 2 percent of taking any and all of the statewide offices. Senate Republicans realize that power is no longer contained within a “permanent majority” to be re-allocated upon opportunity and convenience.
Rather, they seem to have decided that it is time to hang together, lest they soon all hang separately. And in that sense, the more that the rules stay the same, the more that things in Georgia’s Senate are changing.