On Wednesday, President pro tem Tommie Williams and Majority Leader Chip Rogers sat down to discuss at length, for the first time, the motivation behind the Republican caucus decision last year to strip Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of his authority over the state Senate.
The Senate is now formally ruled by an eight-member Committee of Assignments, chaired by Williams, a Republican from Lyons.
Among the points made by Williams and Rogers:
– The Nov. 5 vote by the Senate GOP caucus in Macon was motivated not by anger of last year’s arm-twisting over the hospital bed tax, but a fresh reading of the state Constitution.
– That their 2006 decision to award Cagle authority over the Senate – the lieutenant governor’s powers had been taken away from his Democratic predecessor, Mark Taylor – was a mistake based on their affection for Cagle. Which they still have.
– And that they have not, over the last three months, explained themselves very well. And plan to do better.
The interview began with Williams alone. Rogers, bogged down in a committee meeting, arrived in the midst of the conversation. As much as possible, I’ve stuck to the verbatim transcript.
The ranking member of the Senate began with a reading of the state constitution, which says that the powers of the lieutenant governor shall be assigned to him by the governor. Which hasn’t happened, Williams quickly added:
Williams: “So the lieutenant governor sought to have powers from the Senate. And got them. But they were not supposed to get them. …
“The lieutenant governor’s in the code section with the executive [branch]. In the code section where the Legislature’s established, it says the legislative, executive and judicial powers shall forever remain separate and distinct. And no person discharging the duties of one shall at the same time exercise the function of either of the other.
“We had our differences on issues. I would take one position, maybe the lieutenant governor would take another position. His position was oftentimes – I won’t say clouded. It was that he was running for governor. And that came out.
“So my concern [was], not knowing what the Georgia Constitution said, just thinking on the federal level, [Vice President] Joe Biden doesn’t run the Senate, even though Democrats are in charge. Because there is a separation of powers there…..
“This started to trouble me. That we had given up all of our legislative branch powers, contrary to the Georgia Constitution, and to the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, which we also hold, over to an executive.
“Taking it back is not an easy task. Nobody gives up power easily, especially when you like the person. That made it doubly hard for all of us, because we genuinely like [Cagle]. We tried to find a way within the constitution to try to share some of the powers. Frankly, it was not received well.
“I will admit there were one or two who had got crossed up with Casey. Maybe they had other motives. But not the leadership. We simply believed that we, as senators, ought to govern the Senate.”
It was pointed out that, two years earlier, the Senate Republican caucus – led by Williams – had granted Cagle those powers over the Senate.
Williams: “I’m telling you, we didn’t read the Georgia Constitution until a freshman pointed it out to us [last] year. You’re right. And had we known, we probably wouldn’t have done that. Except that Casey had been in the Senate. We were all friends with Casey. I didn’t realize at the time that a person who’s in the executive and thinking about being a governor in the future has a different agenda.
Rogers, joining the conversation: “We made a decision – which I think was an improper decision – based on personalities, based on people, in 2006, and not based on what’s constitutionally right. And what is even in our rules….
“I don’t know how you read the rules or the constitution, and come to any conclusion other than the one we came to.”
Williams: “We’ve said that. But nobody has ever said that for us, as being our motivation.”
Insider: “But you folks haven’t explained that.”
Williams: “We should have. We should have. I should have done an op-ed on it or something.
“I had a lobbyist approach me yesterday and say, ‘Senator Williams, I know that in that deal, you may not have gotten everything you wanted.’ And I went, ‘I don’t understand exactly what you’re talking about.’ Then she went into this long thing about Casey’s history.
“And I said, ‘Hold on. Casey’s a good man, in my opinion. This has nothing to do about Casey. This is about who controls the powers of the Senate. Is it the executive, or us?’
“And she said, ‘What are you talking about?’
“I said, ‘Well, the Georgia Constitution says this, this and this.’
“She says, ‘Why aren’t y’all saying that?’
“Well, we want to say it….
“I called Chip a few days after we did this [last November]. I said I’ve never felt so bad about doing the right thing. Doing the right thing was for the people of Georgia to have a Senate run by senators and not by the executive. But Casey’s my friend. And I don’t like this, probably, any better than he does, on the personality side.
“And a lot of members, even today, don’t like the fact that it became personal. But the constitution is not based on personalities. So we’ve had some healthy debates and some disagreements about it.”
Was the hospital bed tax passed last year the motivation for asserting power?
Williams: “Anytime you govern in a bad economy, if you’re in control…there are going to be conflicts. Members are either going to get mad with us or get mad with Casey. Because you’ve got to have 29 votes. You have to get the team together to get across the finish line.
“But whether he was in control or we were in control, those problems would exist. My own opinion is Casey did a good job. Chip and I would often realize his agenda was tempered by the fact that was going to be running for governor – as every lieutenant governor [has.]
“I don’t begrudge those things, but that doesn’t make it the Senate agenda. As the legislative branch, we’ve got to get elected in the small district that may be completely different from his [statewide] district.
“It was painful to make that happen, but when you’re trying to fill a whole in the budget….”
Both men acknowledged they were part of Cagle’s effort to recruit votes for passage of last year’s budget deal.
Williams: “We were. Even though we thought there was a different answer.”
Rogers, returning to the topic of motivation: “To answer your question, I can’t point to any single event, and most certainly it was not that event. I think the recognition of the proper balance was made way before that. And each person who supported us came to that conclusion at a different point in time. But there’s a reason why these guys wrote it like this.
“And maybe we were blinded by our friendship and our desire to see our friend succeed when he had won a historic election – the first Republican lieutenant governor.”
Williams: “I told Chip at the time this was probably not the best idea.”
Rogers: “I can still tell you the date, the time, and the exact spot where I was when I got that phone call. But again, personalities set aside, the way this thing functions right is when the people that are leading the Senate are accountable to the Senate. The same way the person leading the House is accountable to the House.
“Casey’s got great accountability, but it’s to 9.5 million people in Georgia, not to the body itself.
“I want to say something about the Committee on Assignments. There’s this narrative that somehow these actions empowered us two. If we argue on one side that the powers have been given to the Committee on Assignments, then by definition it empowers the eight members of the Committee on Assignments. No given two members of that. In fact, Tommie has the least amount of power, because he doesn’t have voting rights on that committee.
“So I get curious about this statement that this is just Williams and Rogers attempting to get power, when if anything, [in Macon] the rules were changed first, and then the elected officers were voted on.”
Williams: “We intentionally did that so folks couldn’t say that we got elected and then tried to change the rules.”
Although the Senate president pro tem said no further moves to address Cagle’s remaining powers is planned. But he hinted strongly that a final balance has yet to be struck:
Williams: “Governing is no fun. It’s a pain. You deal with everything from people’s secretaries to their parking places. It’s not something that I, frankly, desire. Having the powers does not enthrall me, excite me or build my ego. I have to work to keep all that in check, but it – really and truly, this is what we are swearing to. This is what the history of America is about….
“We had given him absolute control of the Senate, and felt like it was necessary, for the good of the legislative body, that we have a say.
“Now, we didn’t, frankly, take it all. And we’re trying to work with him on the powers that are left. Some of those, you could probably say, are executive. You could say that appointing bills to committees are presiding duties. It’s a little bit of a stretch – but we’re trying to work with him, and hopefully, it works out so that we can carry out the business of the Senate.”
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider