ATLANTA — The government was set up so that ordinary citizens can affect what becomes law, but the first challenge is learning how.
Seen through the eyes of a freshman legislator, the process is complicated but not impossible.
“What you learn in school about how a bill becomes a law is approximate,” Rep. Brian Prince, D-Augusta, said with a grin.
Prince is at the end of the Capitol pecking order as the least senior member of the minority party.
He jokes about that with the legislator seated in the desk next to him on the House floor, Rep. Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, who has 11 days more seniority, because both won special elections.
McClain, a retired pro football player and labor union official who’s often been to the Capitol and the fringes of power, acknowledges that things changed after he became a legislator.
“To me, it’s a whole lot different. When you’re on the outside, you hear what you think is going on. When you’re on the inside, you know what’s going on,” he said, adding jokingly that he elected Prince the leader of their “freshman class.”
The process begins with an idea, Prince said. It takes two weeks or so for the legislative counsel’s staff lawyers to draft it into the form of a bill.
The legislator recommends changes, confers with the lawyers, and in another week winds up with something he formally introduces when he “drops it in the hopper,” actually just an ordinary, letter-size desk binder from any office-supply store.
A clerk gives the bills numbers in sequence, and the next day the speaker of the House assigns them to a committee for consideration.
Then the real grind of getting passage begins.
“There is some work you have to do behind the scenes, in and out of committee, to help them understand it,” Prince said.
Considering that 1,500 bills have been introduced since the two-year term of the General Assembly began in January 2012, committee members depend on people they trust to help them understand each one. Too many unanswered questions can doom a bill.
Prince got advice from Democratic Whip Carolyn Hugley, of Columbus, and even Republicans Rep. Ben Harbin, of Evans, and Rep. Barry Fleming, of Harlem, about how to win support. All have been in the senior leadership of the majority in the past.
Hugley told him the best way for someone in the minority party to get a bill passed is to ask a member of the majority to be the primary sponsor.
“You’ve got to get someone to fight for you on all levels,” Prince said.
That might include rallies, letter-writing campaigns and news conferences. Most of the time, it comes down to the bill’s sponsor talking one-on-one to colleagues during receptions, between committee meetings and on the House floor when few people are listening to speeches.
The goal is persuading a member of the committee to make the motion to pass the bill and persuading enough committee members to vote for it. That has to be done several times because most bills have to be passed by a subcommittee, its full committee and the House Rules Committee – all before it can come before the full House membership.
Considering that only two bills this year have been defeated by the full House or Senate, the process screens out a lot of bills lacking majority support.
“I think leadership did a good job of making sure that those things that we still have a lot of questions on, you just didn’t throw those out there for a vote,” Harbin said.
If the House passes it, then the whole process has to be repeated as it is considered by the Senate. If both the House and Senate pass identical versions of the bill, then it heads to the governor for him to sign or veto.
Savvy legislators confer with the governor’s staffers all along the process to ensure he has no objections to the bill.
If the versions are different, a conference committee of three from the House and three from the Senate work out the differences, and then the House and Senate vote again on the conference version.
The process can have pitfalls. Two weeks ago, the newest Republican freshman, Rep. Sam Moore, of Macedonia, introduced a handful of bills that resulted in a public controversy.
He said it was a rookie mistake when his hometown newspaper wrote about one that would repeal the state’s loitering law, preventing police from questioning suspected sex offenders lurking at playgrounds.
The senior members of the Republican leadership individually blasted him and the bill, with the chairman of the Rules Committee vowing not to let any of his proposals get to the full House for a vote.
Moore later apologized, saying he hadn’t known that members of the public would be able to read his proposals before committees had the chance to polish up the wording. He also complained that the leadership should have coached him.
Prince said he knew from involvement with his church that there would be lots of different opinions and that seeking advice on his own was important, especially from people such as Hugley.
“She walked me through some of the dos and don’ts,” he said.
One of the “dos” is to establish relationships with everyone. Legislating is a team sport, so to speak. Veterans like to say it takes 91 friends to pass anything in the House, and people who aren’t friendly and supportive won’t get anything done.