Please don’t make legislative session longer
“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made,” the 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck once quipped, but that could have just as easily described lawmaking here in the states.
Sine Die—like lawmaking in general—was filled with surprises as legislators rushed to beat the deadline to ensure their bills’ passage by whatever means necessary. But could there be a better mode of lawmaking? Some think that more than 40 days are needed to govern properly, but be careful what you wish for.
As it stands, the Georgia General Assembly meets for one 40-day session per year. It convenes in early January and generally adjourns in April, since legislative days do not need to be concurrent.
“This is an unpopular opinion, but I think the legislative session should be longer. Having a 40 day [session] means pressure at the end to do things [fast,] sometimes by any means possible. I wish we instead had the time to emphasize doing things [right],” Sen. Michele Au (D-48) recently tweeted. While I agree that emphasizing doing things right should always be the Georgia General Assembly’s priority, I don’t think that extending the legislative session is necessary or prudent.
The push to extend legislative session could very well be a slippery slope to reaching a year-round legislature, which should worry all Georgians. There was a time when the U.S. Congress essentially operated as a part-time citizen legislature. “It wasn’t until the 1970s that members of Congress began seeing their positions as year-round commitments,” reads an article by National Public Radio. Now, it is a full-time job, and probably not-so-coincidentally, the size of government has since ballooned.
Likewise, if the Georgia legislative session became year-round, it’s conceivable that lawmakers with excess time would sit around dreaming up ways to grow government and the state’s budget. States like California, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts have year-round legislatures, and most Georgians probably don’t want to replicate their policies here.
In truth, longer sessions don’t necessarily translate to better governance. The Cato Institute ranked the states based on a “combination of personal and economic freedoms.” Within the top 10 states, only one—Michigan—has a year-round legislature. Meanwhile, three of the five worst ranked states have year-round legislatures.
When reviewing other states’ session limits, it becomes clear that Georgia doesn’t need a longer session to govern better. Some states meet for shorter sessions than Georgia, and legislatures from four states only meet once every two years. One of these is Texas—the second largest state in the country.
None of this is to say that Georgia lawmakers don’t run out of time at the end of session, but that’s often a problem of time-management rather than not having enough time. Just this session, there were several days in which the legislature convened but failed to consider a single bill.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of instances of time-wasting antics under the gold dome. In the waning minutes of Sine Die—instead of solely focusing on bills—Lieutenant Gov. Geoff Duncan interrupted the Senate’s business to deliver a protracted farewell speech. Within his remarks, he touted the importance of promoting policy over politics—an important notion—but his speech rings insincere. It took precious time that could have been used to consider numerous pieces of good policy.
Not terribly long after, the legislature adjourned, and many bills died, like SB 352, which was a widely popular measure to help address workforce deficiencies in the public health and safety sectors. It had passed both chambers unanimously and needed one last procedural vote, which never came. While Duncan wasn’t the only lawmaker to give a long goodbye speech, his was the most ill-timed. It could have been done at any other moment, and it seems that grandstanding claimed several legislative casualties.
For all the grief I give Georgia policymakers, many of them have done commendable jobs. The Peach State boasts a balanced budget, low taxes, thriving economy, record low unemployment, and a AAA bond rating. While it is important to vet and deliberate over legislation carefully, the Georgia General Assembly has all of the tools and time it needs to do so.
It sets its own calendar, can take breaks during session to study bills, and the legislature can even be called into special session. To say that the legislature needs more time probably isn’t accurate, but some members of the General Assembly could probably use their time more wisely.