“Cactus Jack” Garner is the only man in American history to have served both as speaker of the U.S. House and — in his capacity as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s vice presidents — presiding officer of the Senate.
The Texan was in a unique position to compare the two positions. And Garner declared that in his judgment the job of vice president wasn’t worth a warm bucket of spit. Except he didn’t say spit.
No one enters politics to become a warm bucket of anything. Politicians become politicians because they want the clout to bend the world to their way of thinking.
The problem is that power is often a zero-sum game. For one person to gain, another must lose.
This is the situation in our state Capitol. Last November, a mere three days after he was re-elected, the Senate Republican caucus stripped Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle — a fellow member of the GOP — of most of his authority over that chamber. The Senate was placed in the hands of an eight-senator committee led by President Pro Tem Tommie Williams.
What has been missing for the past three months is an explanation. Last week, the two ranking Republicans of the Senate, Williams and Majority Leader Chip Rogers, finally sat down to discuss the uprising.
Senators were not seeking revenge for the arm-twisting Cagle applied last year to pass the hospital-bed tax that balanced the state budget, the pair said. Rather, they were motivated by a fresh reading of the state Constitution — which, like the federal version, merely says the lieutenant governor shall preside over the Senate.
Only tradition, and repeated consent of the Senate itself, has given the lieutenant governor the power to name committee chairmen — the chief source of his hold over the chamber.
Now, before you scoff at the senators’ rationale, remember that the Georgia Constitution is a book several inches thick and dull reading. The temptation to skip whole chapters is always there.
Note, too, that this kind of feud isn’t limited to Georgia. GOP senators in Alabama have done much the same thing to that state’s first Republican lieutenant governor.
“[Vice President] Joe Biden doesn’t run the Senate, even though Democrats are in charge, because there is a separation of powers,” Williams said. “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, over to an executive.”
There is a local precedent. In 2002, after the GOP takeover of the state Senate, Republicans stripped the just re-elected Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor of his authority over the chamber. But Taylor was a Democrat.
And in 2006, upon Cagle’s victory, those same Republicans — including Williams and Rogers — granted the state’s first Republican lieutenant governor full authority over the chamber. A mistake, they now say.
“Maybe we were blinded by our friendship and our desire to see our friend succeed when he had won a historic election,” Rogers said.
“I told Chip at the time this was probably not the best idea,” Williams added.
The lieutenant governor on Tuesday beat back an attempt to remove the Senate purse-strings from his control. And the Senate leaders hinted that they were willing to push Cagle even deeper into that warm bucket of spit — if their friend didn’t behave.
“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 [assigning] bills to committees are presiding duties. It’s a little bit of a stretch — but we’re trying to work with him,” Williams said.
A similar attempt to sideline Lt. Gov. Zell Miller eventually collapsed. But if this coup holds, one consequence may be the tone of legislation. Already, the Senate is the more ideologically driven body of the Legislature. A chamber run by Republican senators from safe GOP districts is likely to be even more comfortable with sharp-edged issues.
On Thursday, the Senate voted to override former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s veto of a zero-based budgeting bill. Curiously, Cagle had stepped away from his presiding duties when the vote occurred.
But the coup also could change the job of lieutenant governor.
Taylor, the former lieutenant governor, thinks the position is necessary — and sympathizes with Cagle. “I would encourage the lieutenant governor to stay engaged and use his statewide mandate as a way to continue his agenda,” Taylor said Saturday.
But Taylor dropped a tidbit Republicans might want consider. You know that five years ago Taylor engaged in tense negotiations with Secretary of State Cathy Cox over which of the two should run for governor. (Neither Democrat would budge, and a bitter primary won by Taylor split the party.)
But as part of his effort to persuade Cox to drop down into the lieutenant governor’s race, Taylor had to make the job more than that warm bucket of spit. If she were elected, Taylor promised, he would put her in charge of a major swath of state government. The massive Department of Human Resources, or perhaps the Department of Transportation, Taylor said.
According to a fresh reading of the Georgia Constitution, the governor can do that.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider