The partial shutdown of the federal government wrapped up its fourth week just as the Georgia General Assembly completed its first week of action in 2019. One imagines the shutdown will end before state legislators finish their annual work sometime in early spring, but one never knows.
The incongruity between these two legislative branches is another occasion to note the state body’s superior fitness for doing the people’s work. The question is why this should be so. Here are a few possibilities.
The first and most obvious is that state legislators are closer to the people. This is true in the literal sense: Atlanta is nearer to every part of Georgia than Washington, D.C., is to any part of our state. It’s also true in that they represent smaller geographic areas: At the most, our state senators represent parts of 11 counties, whereas our two U.S. senators jointly represent all 159. Likewise, each state House member represents fewer than 60,000 people, each U.S. House member more than 750,000.
More than a century has passed since the U.S. House expanded to the current 435 members, during which time America’s population has more than tripled. There’s nothing magic, nor necessarily optimal, about that number 435. Britain’s Parliament has 650 members (roughly one per 100,000 Britons) and Germany’s Bundestag has 709 members (about one per 115,000 Germans).
You might think the last thing we need in this country is a bigger Congress, but there’s a chance it would make the body more responsive and more representative.
Size and proportion are hardly the only structural flaws with Congress. Another one relates to deadlines; the problem being they haven’t many.
It is widely observed that Congress has become accustomed to governing by crisis. This owes in part to the absence of any deadline other than the ones created by lawmakers’ own dereliction of duty.
The state Legislature is allowed 40 workdays per year. There’s no date by which those 40 days must be used – in theory, lawmakers could work three or four days in each month – but the limit is useful. Also helpful is the added time pressure for members of a part-time legislature, most of whom have other jobs awaiting them, to return home if they want to keep those jobs.
The General Assembly’s lone mandate is to pass a budget. It is possible lawmakers could let the 40th day expire without passing a budget, and we should acknowledge the leadership required to ensure that doesn’t happen. Yet, the time limit combined with that clear prioritization means the budget sets much of the tone and tempo for the session. Everything else must fit around it.
It also helps that Georgia must balance its budget each year. Now, there are reasons Congress could not easily do that, and there are even reasons Congress perhaps should not do that in any given year.
But consider how unlikely the current shutdown would be – over a matter of about $5 billion – if it weren’t assumed and even accepted that Washington was going to borrow almost $1 trillion this year. It is hard to believe Congress and the White House would be haggling over a border wall, at any price, if they had to balance all the other spending against the available tax revenues.
Or, conversely, much of the other spending would have long since been discontinued, shifted to state and local governments, or left to the private sector to figure out, minimizing the effect of a shutdown for any reason.
It should come as no surprise that a legislature whose members are closer to the people, with a firm deadline for legislating and more pressure to balance the budget, functions better than one lacking all three. So why do we keep adding to the pile of things we expect the dysfunctional body to handle?.
• Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Contact him through the group’s website at www.georgiapolicy.org.