Old truisms prove accurate

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A good many of you have asked why simple, straightforward, no nonsense, good government legislation fails to pass even though it appears to have universal and overwhelming support and appeal among voters and legislators. Remember the old sayings and adages from the lips of your grandparents and older folks that you felt irrelevant and quaint? Sayings like “if you’ve got your health you’ve got everything” and “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it.” The older you get it occurs to you how accurate and wise these old sayings are in actual life. They are golden facts.

One of these sage adages, “it takes an act of Congress,” pertains to the difficulty of getting something accomplished. In politics there is no clearer truism. It is extremely difficult to pass a piece of legislation through Congress, and it is just as equally difficult to channel a bill through the labyrinth of legislative approval in Alabama. Ask any successful lobbyist or legislator which side they would rather be on in the legislative wars and they will tell you that they much prefer to be against a piece of legislation than trying to pass it.

It is probably a hundred times harder to steer a bill through legislative approval than to kill it. The senate rules are such that if a handful of the 35 senators are adamantly opposed to the legislation then it is easy work to kill the bill. If the right senator is against the bill, for example if he is chairman of the Rules Committee and wants the bill killed, it is dead. It does not matter if the proposed legislation is as all American as being in favor of apple pie and motherhood, the legislation would still be difficult to pass.

If for nothing else, the bill has to go before both the House and Senate committees, win approval and avoid having an amendment added to it. If an amendment is added, the bill basically has to start all over again. The bill is then placed on the special order calendar set by the Rules Committee and there are hundreds of bills waiting to get on the calendar. Only a few bills make it on the calendar each day and there are only 30 legislative days in the session. After the bill makes it out of committee, it then has to pass both houses and hopefully the governor is also for apple pie and motherhood because if he vetoes the bill it has to start all over again.

Let me give you an example of a piece of apple pie and motherhood legislation I was asked to sponsor when I was a freshman legislator. There was a quirk in Alabama’s criminal laws that allowed the family of a criminal defendant to be in the courtroom during a criminal trial and sit behind the criminal and observe and cry on behalf of their relative. However, unbelievably the family of the crime victim could not be in the courtroom. The Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL”) sought to correct this injustice and asked me to sponsor their bill and work towards its passage.

I worked diligently for the bill. The press gave me and the bill glowing editorials for its fairness. We got the bill out of the House, where it passed overwhelmingly. However, when it got to the Senate it was assigned, rightfully so, to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was Senator Earl Hilliard from Jefferson County. He was opposed to the bill and as chairman of the committee he deep sixed it and would not let it out of committee. No amount of haranguing from Vocal or bad press could budge Earl.

However, one day I was on the floor of the House and the VOCAL leader, Miriam Shehane, called me out to the lobby. She said Earl was sick and would not be in Montgomery that day but the Senate Judiciary Committee was meeting and the vice chairman was going to bring our bill up out of order. We quickly went to the sixth floor and whisked our bill out of the Judiciary Committee. The bill won final approval in the Senate a few weeks later and became law.

Remember old truisms, like “it will take an act of congress,” are very accurate, especially in politics.

See you next week.