A New Day Dawning … Maybe

As Republicans expand their conrol over the Tennessee legislature, a new day may be dawning for state politics, but there are a number of things that could temper significant change.

The General Assembly begins today with a whopping 17% of the legislators being new. That’s a lot of change. And not since the 1800’s have the Republicans had this much control over state government. That, too, is a lot of change. However, it remains to be seen what all this change will mean. Will a new day really dawn?

In a number of ways, I think so, but there are a number of things that could temper significant change.

Juggling Legislative Committees

First and foremost is the composition of the committees. The House and Senate Speakers make the committee appointments for their respective chambers. Legislators should find out their committee assignments this week.

Just as there were moderate Democrats who tempered the liberalism of committees when Democrats controlled the appointments, there are some more moderate Republicans who could temper the “conservatism” of some of the new committees. The key will be whether the Speakers will put those members with more moderate views on certain subjects on the committees that deal with those subjects.

For example, some Republicans are more sympathetic to the positions of the Tennessee Education Association when it comes to public education, and if too many of them are placed on the education committee, they will temper the possibility of reforms in public education. Because this could frustrate the new Governor’s expressed desire to usher in some reforms in education, I think the education committees in the House and Senate will be pretty strong. No longer will Memphis or the teachers’ union have as much control over the House Education Committee.

Another area to watch is the judiciary committees. It is helpful to have attorneys on those committees because they do, in fact, best understand the legal issues presented by the bills on criminal law that are routinely assigned to them. But a major issue over the next two years will be judicial accountability—namely, how should bad judges be disciplined and should the members of the Supreme Court be appointed or elected. On controversial subjects like this, some lawyers can be sensitive to not ruffling the feathers of the judges before whom they or their law partners practice. Getting a strong judiciary committee to deal with legal issues while not having a committee in the hip pockets of judicial robes will be a challenge for the two Speakers.

Handling Lobbyists

Second, the “Third House” was not changed by the election. The “Third House” is the name given by Capitol Hill observers to the cadre of lobbyist who swarm the Hill. They are still there, and many will no doubt want to make sure business continues as close to usual as possible. And, when it comes to lobbyists, we don’t know how the many new legislators will respond to their influence. You have to hope the right folks take these new legislators under their wings and keep them from being sucked up into the culture that has too long predominated.

Balancing Social Concerns and the Economy

Third, for social conservatives, we’ll have to see how aggressive the new legislators want to be and how the Republican caucus, in general, wants to balance the social issues of concern to their electoral base with the need to address jobs and the economy.

Already, the Republicans are talking about reducing business regulation and capping the size of non-economic damages being awarded by juries in personal injury cases. These are issues that didn’t have much chance of going very far in years past, but this year things could be different. These are worthy considerations, but any honest assessment of our situation and the statistics make plain that the disintegration of the family greatly contributes to our economic problems.

Addressing only the economic consequences that flow from the disintegration of the family as a way of fixing the economy is like building a hospital at the foot of a cliff to fix those who fall off instead of building a fence to keep so many folks from falling off. The more our laws can encourage and promote the value of children being raised by stable, committed moms and dads, the better will be the workforce that will be running our economy in the years to come. Let’s hope Republicans will be willing to articulate that connection and take some actions to strengthen our families.

So, here’s to hoping that today is, indeed, the dawn of a new day in state government.