Democratic and Republican politicians can get fiery when debate turns to the likes of guns or taxes, accusing each other of being out-of-touch extremists.
But in the Georgia Legislature, those kinds of fighting words are more like the rough waves on top of a calm sea. When it’s time to vote under the Gold Dome in Atlanta, most legislators reach for the same desktop buttons: green for agreement.
While there are real differences between the parties, not everything is partisan. There are several reasons why.
But first the numbers: About two-thirds of Georgia’s state lawmakers are Republican. Republicans author the vast majority of successful bills, and nearly all committee chairs are Republicans. Though the GOP sometimes has defectors, there’s no question which party is in charge.
But the result is not usually party-line floor votes. It’s usually agreement, with votes from both sides of the aisle. Most bills that get to the state House or Senate floor pass with far more than a two-thirds approval.
Republican state Rep. Matt Hatchett of Dublin has a front-row seat in the House: his actual desk — and his role as majority caucus chairman.
“We do listen to each other,” he said, speaking of Democrats and Republicans. “It comes from the adage there’s a time you campaign and a time you govern.”
Governing can require compromise, he said. And not only that, sometimes the other party helps improve bills.
The state House’s top-ranked Democrat, Minority Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, sits a few seats over from Hatchett. She drew a distinction between two different kinds of legislation.
“In a truncated 40-day session, the bulk of the legislation is not about creating new law’” she said. “It is about tweaking existing law and augmenting it based on the past experience of using the law as it is.”
Those tweaks — getting the existing machinery of government to work well — are attractive to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Hammering out an effective fix is much of what lawmakers do in committee meetings. Sometimes there’s not even much of an ideological angle.
Last year, for example, a Georgia court ruled that a then-employee of the Perry Parkway Publix didn’t technically break the law when he sneaked videos up a shopper’s skirt.
So one of the first bills filed this past session was a legal fix to make it clear that such creepy behavior is criminal.
Legislators supported the idea, but the measure didn’t get approved until the last working day of the session in March. It first took hours of hearings and multiple bill drafts to come up with legally sound language.
Abrams said that tension typically comes into the process when legislators see a bill as fundamentally changing how Georgia does things: how much government there is or how or where it operates.
The Legislature’s inbox is full of boundary-shifting proposals that didn’t get as far as a floor vote. Democrats proposed things such as expanding Medicaid eligibility to people who can’t afford insurance and raising the minimum wage. Republican backers of a casino gambling proposal didn’t find enough like-minded lawmakers.
Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, has been watching Georgia politics for decades.
He said a lot of things in the Legislature just aren’t that partisan. But he also said there’s a big difference between the Georgia General Assembly and Congress: Georgia lawmakers interact and socialize with each other across party lines, and they have personal ties with each other.
During the session, every meal break and dinner hour is filled with receptions or buffets put on by lobbies, industries or groups such as the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce where the GOP and Democrats rub shoulders.
And if lawmakers are from a populous county like Houston or Macon-Bibb, they regularly meet with each other across party lines about local issues.
Lawmakers can even elbow each other from their little floor desks.
“Congress used to be much more bipartisan too when you actually knew and liked people,” Bullock said.
Two of the folks who sit by each other in state Senate are Macon Democrat David Lucas and Jackson Republican Burt Jones. Their districts are also side by side. They split parts of Macon-Bibb and Jones counties.
Jones said many legislators can relate to others because they represent communities that are a lot alike.
“No. 1, we’re all Georgians,” he said.
Meetings of the Rural Caucus regularly attract packs of Democrats and Republicans from north, south and middle who are trying to tackle problems like the lack of broadband internet, health care choices and jobs in their districts. Military communities’ lawmakers usher their visiting base leaders around the state Capitol with a bipartisan eagerness to try and prove that Georgia is a good place to keep and expand bases.
But Jones also said, "Because of the legislative vetting process, a lot of things don't make it to the floor until they have significant support from both parties, really.”
Committee chairmen like Jones play an outsized role in that vetting process. His Insurance and Labor Committee doesn’t schedule a hearing on every single bill on pay, employment or insurance that’s sent to his committee.
He said the bills he wants to hear first are bills that seem to be good ideas and that have pretty of broad traction, including with his Democratic colleagues.
Lucas said that bills get Democratic support because much of the time, the minority party has put something in a bill, such as an amendment.
“The other part is whether or not you got the votes to even stop anything,” he said.
That’s the math: If Republicans are too divided over a bill, GOP defectors plus Democrats can unite to stop it.
Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee