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Columns Tom Baxter

With Ralston over their shoulder, legislators get off to a smooth start

Former House Speaker David Ralston.

By Tom Baxter

The Georgia General Assembly has begun this year’s session on a positive and generally bipartisan note, with a lot of new and optimistic members and plenty of money to give away. We don’t have to look very far to see that we’re lucky.

Outlining his group’s agenda in the South Carolina legislature, a leader of the recently-formed S.C. Freedom Caucus called Kevin McCarthy’s four-day, 15-vote struggle to get elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives “a model to emulate.”

“We would characterize that as an outstanding display of how our republic is supposed to work,” said state Rep. R.J. May. His group formed under the wing of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus, and includes U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, a 12-vote holdout, and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows among its supporters.

May called South Carolina “the most liberal Republican-controlled state in the nation” and vowed to upset the status quo in Columbia. Republicans hold an 88-36 majority in the South Carolina House, so the 20-member caucus can’t cause the leadership that much trouble, but they’re going to do what they can.

We might also mention Missouri, where a Republican attempt to tweak the House dress code has spiraled into a national propaganda bonanza for Democrats. The Republican legislator who proposed the rules change requiring women to wear business attire with jackets or coats said she was simply trying to make the rules for women the same as those for men.

In a legislature, nothing is that simple. The floor debate got silly, with an amendment that clarified that cardigans would be acceptable. Republicans got off on the wrong foot, in a year when they are attempting to close the barn door, making it harder to put referendum questions on the ballot now that voters in the state have already voted to expand Medicaid and legalize recreational marijuana.

Meanwhile in Georgia, which is routinely held up as the political friction point of the nation, House Speaker Jon Burns and Speaker pro tem Jan Jones were elected by an acclamation vote. For the first time in memory the entire House calendar was set and published on the session’s first day, and the train seems to be moving down the track without hitches or bumps.

You have to think this has a lot to do with the enduring memory of former House Speaker David Ralston.

Ralston, who died last November a couple of weeks after the election, and his announcement that he was stepping down as speaker, set a template for moderation that at least in the early days of this session appears to have taken hold.

Ralston would have hooted at the idea of emulating the performative chaos that marked Congress’ attempt to organize itself. He more than once faced down attempts to turn the House into a political theater, and he would have had little sympathy for any attempt by a minority in his party to push it into a more confrontational mode.

There are other factors in the legislature’s smooth start, beginning with the fact that it’s not an election year and nobody’s in much of a hurry to grandstand. That will change. The big struggle within the Republican Party between Donald Trump and Brian Kemp was over a while ago, with few signs of re-emerging. Democrats, meanwhile, are in the slow process of recovering from a disappointing election year.

There are open divisions within the Republican Party at the national level that will make governing very hard for the House caucus with its thin majority. Yet the GOP still has solid control of a majority of state legislatures. It will be interesting to see if more Republican legislators decide to emulate the Washington Republican model, like some have in South Carolina, or stick to a model of governing more like what Ralston had in mind.

 

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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