When Republicans won the House in 2004, one of the first acts of the presumptive new speaker, Glenn Richardson, was to import a set of tutors to give GOP lawmakers some closed-door lessons in the art of government.
Their guides were associates of Tom “The Hammer” DeLay, then the no-holds-barred majority leader of the U.S. House.
We know this because a fresh-faced staffer hit the wrong switch and allowed one of the sessions to be broadcast across the state Capitol.
DeLay was gone by the next election cycle, doomed by his association with Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is now doing time for his bribery of public officials.
Richardson is now gone, too, done in by an ex-wife who, on the six o’clock news, declared herself tired of keeping his secrets. As a matter of fact, she declared, the speaker did have a full-blown affair with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist while legislation was in play.
The House crown was to have devolved upon the head of Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter of Johns Creek. But after a weekend of study, Burkhalter withdrew from contention and hasn’t been seen in public since.
Amid the resulting chaos, the bilious winds of change have begun to stir.
Already, the gusts have blown away any DeLay-like machismo remaining in the ranks of House Republicans. It is possible that we will find bills for chastity belts in the year-end financial reports of some lawmakers.
Listing his qualifications for a House leadership position, state Rep. John Lunsford (R-McDonough) on Friday proudly told a WSB-TV reporter that he sleeps in his own bed every night.
State Rep. Jim Cole (R-Forsyth), senior floor leader for Gov. Sonny Perdue, composed a code of ethics he wants prospective House leaders to sign before they get his vote.
First is a pledge to be “faithful to one’s spouse.” The second? A promise to “avoid embarrassing public behavior.”
Cole is serious, and not a little chagrined. He is one of the few House Republicans who admits he could have done more to stop the tangled web of influence, money and sex that has ensnared the chamber.
“I did just stand by,” he said. “I could have spoke up, but I didn’t.”
Cole is also among those pushing for an end to “The Hammer”-inspired practices that Richardson and other House leaders used to maintain a tight grip over both legislation and down-the-food-chain colleagues.
House leaders, for instance, are currently authorized to pack committees with allies on crucial votes. Picture a swooping bird of prey and the “hawk system” becomes clear.
“If we can’t pass or defeat legislation when we have a majority of members, then shame on us,” said state Rep. Fran Millar of Dunwoody, one of four Republican candidates for House speaker pro tem.
Not surprisingly, candidates in the 2010 race for governor are making the strongest calls for a change in the way the Legislature operates.
Republican Karen Handel, the secretary of state, has riled some GOP lawmakers by proposing a $25 cap on gifts, including dinners. She would also make records generated by lawmakers available to the public through the state Open Records Act.
This way, a voter would be able to check a legislator’s e-mail to determine whether he or she is involved in an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist without waiting three years for an angry ex-wife to squeal. (Nathan Deal, also a GOP candidate for governor, sends word that he thinks this would jeopardize the confidential bond between lawmakers and their constituents.)
Yet another Republican candidate, state Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, wants to create a statewide grand jury that can freely scour the Capitol for public corruption.
Among Democrats, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin has already signed onto “anti-corruption” legislation that would reduce campaign contribution limits and impose a ban on gifts over $25.
And former Gov. Roy Barnes has complained of elected officials “looking out for the special-interest groups that foot the bill for luxurious out-of-town trips, high-priced meals, and extravagant outings.”
Something billed as ethics reform will pass the General Assembly next year. Republican repentance requires it.
But Rick Thompson, the former executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission, says the public has every right to be skeptical. The easiest thing in the world, he said, is to pile up the laws — and quietly drain the money needed to enforce them.
One idea now being talked about in other states, he said, is a guaranteed stream of funding for agencies tasked with enforcing good behavior among public officials — that can’t be tampered with. State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a Republican candidate for governor, has expressed thoughts along these lines.
Another thing that needs to be considered: Three years after his fall, Tom DeLay returned to national television, shaking his tush to “Wild Thing.” The parallel isn’t exact, but with the right legislation we could eliminate any chance of history repeating itself here.
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