NOTE: This is the Web version of my Sunday AJC column.
By the early 1990s, Democrats running the U.S. House of Representatives had grown fat and brazen, confident that no matter what their ethical excesses, their grip on power could not be threatened.
In the 1994 elections, Newt Gingrich taught them otherwise.
By 2006, Republicans in Congress had themselves grown fat and sassy enough to repeat the mistakes that had put them into power. Showing a blatant disregard for ethical standards, they openly traded political influence for the favors of K Street lobbyists and ignored warnings of a voter backlash.
So in 2007, they handed the speaker’s gavel to Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
The 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly, which ended Thursday, has unfortunately rivaled its two congressional counterparts in terms of disregard for ethical standards, subservience to special interests and a sense of invulnerability to consequences. The Georgia state motto — “Wisdom, Justice and Moderation” — was largely abandoned in favor of “Stop us if you can,” and most of the time nobody could or did.
The lobbyist money flowed, and efforts to slow it were dismissed with scornful laughter. Tea Party demands that government not be used to favor certain industries or companies were ignored. “Tax reform” became an excuse for passing out favors, and issues such as immigration and abortion were used as smokescreens and distractions from the real action.
Come 2013, however, Georgia Republicans will not lose control of the Legislature. Unlike congressional Democrats in ‘94 and congressional Republicans in 2006, Georgia Republicans have every right to feel invulnerable, because they are. In fact, redistricting is likely to result in even greater Republican majorities next year.
In one sense, this has little to do with political parties. The good-old-boy network that ran Georgia under the Democrats continues to run Georgia today under the label of Republican. They continue to milk the system for their benefit and that of their friends; they continue to use the Legislature as a means to benefit the rich and well-connected. For the most part, the political culture has not changed at all.
But one thing has changed: In my years of covering a Democratic-run Georgia Legislature, legislative leaders were always aware of a rising Republican Party nipping at their heels, ready to use ethics and corruption against them. I won’t say that knowledge kept the Democrats honest, because in too many cases it didn’t. But it did keep them aware that if they let things get out of hand, they would pay a political price.
That’s what is missing now. There is very little fear of a voter backlash.
That attitude is personified in Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour of Gwinnett County. No legislator this session seemed more eager to champion special-interest bills than Balfour. And when an ethics bill limiting lobbyist gifts to $100 was referred to Balfour’s committee, he buried it.
Late in the session, when a resolution creating a commission to at least study ethics reform was referred to his committee, Balfour rewrote it. He stripped the commission of citizen members and packed it with Senate leadership. In a pointed breach of Senate courtesy, Balfour even excluded the resolution’s author from the commission that he had proposed to create.
And although Balfour faces an apparently well-documented ethics complaint charging that he claimed false mileage reimbursement from the state, he has the comfort of $719,000 in his campaign fund, an enormous amount in a state legislative district, with more to come.
– Jay Bookman