It’s good Tinfoil Hat Caucus wrapped things up quickly

Robert Houk • Apr 22, 2013 at 3:52 PM

Forgive me if you have heard this one before.

A priest, a rabbi and a state legislator walk into a bar. The bartender says to them: “Is this a joke?”

I know, it’s not very funny and it’s actually quite insulting to priests and rabbis to be linked to state lawmakers — particularly if they serve in the Tennessee General Assembly. Those vaudevillians in Nashville have really put on a show this year, but not everyone is laughing.

The GOP supermajority in both houses of the Tennessee Legislature was racing last week to wrap up its business. These last few hours of a legislative session can be the most dangerous. It’s when bad bills are often passed in the wee hours of the morning.

Actually, it will be even more frightening next spring when the 108th General Assembly comes to a merciful end. Whatever business that is not finished this year can be taken up when lawmakers return to Nashville in January (wine in liquor stores, for example). Next year’s session is when the real buffoonery is likely to occur. It is an election year — a prime time for the lawmakers to crank up their antics.

There was a time when lawmakers like Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, were treated as brief comic relief on Capitol Hill. Today, the Tinfoil Hat Caucus is setting the agenda.

No wonder so many Tennesseans shudder at the thought of what would happen if Niceley’s bill to allow the General Assembly to select nominees to the U.S. Senate is passed. Can we truly trust a body so paranoid that some of its members mistook a new mop sink in the state Legislature for a Muslim foot-washing bath to make such a decision?

I recall what a fellow reporter on Capitol Hill told me years ago: “Gridlock is good. It slows down bad legislation.”

He had a point. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in Washington, D.C., in recent years, gridlock can also lead to stalemate. Back two decades or so, when my colleague made his comment about gridlock, the Tennessee General Assembly was still controlled by Democrats.

Before there was the monogrammed cowboy boot-wearing Ron Ramsey serving as speaker of the Senate, there was the cosmos-quoting John Wilder. The two men had little in common except for their support of business and commerce. Wilder once remarked that the primary business of the Senate should be to promote business interests in Tennessee.

Years ago, it wasn’t surprising to see Republicans and Democrats in the Senate forming coalitions on certain issues. For an example, take an issue like workers’ compensation. Republicans and a few Democrats, who supported business interests, often lined up on one side, while a few Republicans and Democrats, who leaned kindly in the direction of trial lawyers, lined up on the other side. There were no such coalitions to be found during the recent debate on Gov. Bill Haslam’s major overhaul of workers’ comp in Tennessee.

I do give the Republican leadership of the House and Senate credit for wrapping up their business quickly this year. The fewer days this bunch of lawmakers spends in Nashville, the better off we all are. And that’s no joke.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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