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Punishing disobedient is old hat at the Capitol

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle found it "very troubling" that House Speaker Glenn Richardson would punish four underlings for not voting as instructed.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, called Richardson's decision to strip committee leadership positions from four fellow Republicans "unfortunate," not something that Senate leaders would do.

Indeed, it is hard to defend such punitive actions by a legislative leader who derives his power from his party's rank and file.

But here goes.

In Richardson's defense, what he did has gone on for decades in both chambers of the General Assembly. It's also been standard operating procedure as long as there's been politics, from city hall to the halls of Congress.

In this instance, Richardson, R-Hiram, was determined to deny Mike Evans of Cumming re-election to the State Transportation Board because Evans voted last fall to hire Gena Abraham as Georgia's new transportation commissioner over Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, the speaker's candidate.

Transportation board members are elected by members of the legislature to represent each of the state's 13 congressional districts.

Richardson instructed House Republicans from the 9th Congressional District to support former Rep. Stacey Reece of Gainesville.

But enough ignored those orders to allow Evans to win another term.

Although the voting was done by secret ballot, the speaker found out that Reps. Tom Graves of Ranger, Martin Scott of Rossville, John Meadows of Calhoun and Doug Collins of Gainesville had supported Evans.

Graves lost the most because he had the most to lose.

He was stripped of a subcommittee chairmanship and a coveted slot as a "hawk," which gave him voting power on all committees.

To add insult to injury, Graves was booted from his office inside the Capitol and forced to move across the street.

The others lost a combination of committee leadership posts and subcommittee chairmanships.

"This is a low point and a dark day in the history of the House," Graves said in a speech last week on the House floor.

If so, it wasn't the first.

Four years ago, then-House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, was anxious for the House Judiciary Committee to approve a major tort-reform bill and send it to the floor.

But former Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, the committee's chairman and a lawyer, strongly opposed putting limits on the right of aggrieved parties to take their cases to court.

So, out went Bordeaux from one of the legislature's most prestigious leadership positions, and in went a new chairman with a more sympathetic view toward tort reform.

But the House hasn't had a monopoly over the years on leaders meting out punishment to rein in recalcitrants.

During the late 1980s, when Zell Miller was running the Senate as lieutenant governor, he took the powerful chairmanship of the Rules Committee away from former Sen. Nathan Dean, D-Rockmart, for siding with then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris in a dispute with Miller.

In any legislative body, meting out punishment can be a powerful tool for keeping lawmakers in line, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

But he said it can be a double-edged sword if mishandled.

"If most members come to believe it's an arbitrary system, there's a tendency to want to revolt," Bullock said.

In Richardson's case, there's little the targets of his ire can do now, or even want to do.

In fact, Graves' speech last week was mostly about putting the controversy in the past.

He cited an episode involving the late Tom Murphy that occurred during the 1960s, well before he rose to become a legendary House speaker.

After Murphy was stripped of a committee chairmanship, he reacted not by lashing out but by letting it slide.

"Make no mistake ... it has not gone unnoticed," Graves said. "However ... this is the time and this is the place to put principle over politics."

But there's always a chance that at some future date, Republicans stung by Richardson or lawmakers who sympathize with them might feel it's time for payback.

If Republicans still hold a majority in the House after the November elections, Richardson presumably will seek another term as speaker.

It wouldn't take a huge number of disgruntled Republicans to cut a deal with minority Democrats to put somebody else in the top job.

"A presiding officer has to keep in the back of his mind that punishment ... risks alienating your members," Bullock said. "After all, they vote you in."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.