Seniority is a big deal in pretty much any legislative body. Senior members are more likely to get their pick of committee assignments and generally carry more weight when it comes to power and influence. The Alabama legislature is no exception. While some junior members of the House and Senate quickly catch leadership’s eye — Sen. Slade Blackwell and Rep. Bill Poole for example — most freshmen learn the legislative process and work their way up through the ranks over time.
But seniority is not the only way to make an impact on the legislative process. Legislators joining together to vote as a cohesive group, or bloc, on particular issues can also play a big role. Blocs can form for a number of reasons. Geography can many times bring legislators together. Issues affecting the gulf coast, for instance, become much more significant when all legislators from that region are committed as a group. Other times common interests bring groups together. For example, legislators from north Alabama and the Wiregrass have a common interest when it comes to bills related to the BRAC realignment. As a result, they are a force to be reckoned with when those bills come up.
This year, a new bloc has formed inside the House.
Who is this new batch of power players, you may ask? House Republican Freshmen. That’s right. The most junior members of the House of Representatives have the potential to become one of the legislature’s most potent political forces. With 27 members, freshman House Republicans make up over 1/4 of the total body. And while they’ve been careful not to flex their muscle too much, the short story below illustrates how powerful they could be if they maintain their close bond.
The “10 Minute Calendar” is a mechanism used by the House to pass noncontroversial bills efficiently. 10 minutes is put on the clock, a bill is called, and if time runs out before the bill is passed, it’s carried over and the House quickly moves on to the next bill on the calendar. If any member of the House wants to “kill” a bill on the 10 minute calendar, all they have to do is come to the mic and speak for 10 minutes.
Freshman Republican K.L. Brown came to the mic a couple of weeks ago on the 10 minute calendar with a bill impacting burial policies. Rep. Brown owns a funeral home so this type of legislation is right up his alley. When members of the House wish to be recognized, they press a button that illuminates their name on a board for House members and the Speaker to see. As Rep. Brown’s bill was introduced, powerful budget chairman Jim Barton “lit his light” and was recognized.
Rep. Barton explained his issues with the bill and it became apparent that unless Rep. Brown took an amendment from Rep. Barton, he was going to kill the bill. Brown didn’t like the amendment and reluctantly decided to carry his bill over. A few days later, Rep. Brown brought a different bill and Barton again pushed back against him.
This time Brown’s freshmen colleagues took notice.
The next day Rep. Barton had a seemingly non-controversial bill on the calendar. As Barton’s bill was called, freshman Republican John Merrill was recognized and spoke for several minutes about what an honor and privilege it is to serve in the House of Representatives. House staffers began to sense that something wasn’t quite right and started darting around the chamber trying to find out what was going on. None of the freshman would respond. After Rep. Merrill had finished his speech, he yielded the mic to K.L. Brown.
As Rep. Brown began expressing his concerns with Barton’s bill, all 27 Republican House freshmen hit their buttons — lighting up the House board like a Christmas tree. Barton immediately said that he would take an amendment if Brown had one to offer. “No,” Brown said. “I think this is a good bill and I’m going to encourage my colleagues to vote in favor of it.” All 27 lights immediately went off in unison.
The House sat in stunned silence.
“Representative Brown, your point is well taken,” Barton said. The bill was passed and the House quietly moved on to the next bill. But a message had been sent.
The impressively orchestrated display by the freshmen received little attention outside of the chamber, but veteran lawmakers took notice. “I’ve never heard the chamber that quiet,” said one senior House member. “That’s the proudest moment I’ve had since being elected,” said another.
Coalitions can be fragile and tough to maintain. But if freshman House Republicans can stay together on tough votes, their influence will continue to grow. It should be noted that many of the freshman are fiercely loyal to the Speaker. Many of them were recruited by him to run in 2010 and he supported them against heavily funded incumbents. But it will be interesting to see which freshmen emerge from the pack as the next generation of House leaders.