Reform the calendar and reform the legislatureOn Wednesday, Kleinheider used the dictatorial tactics of Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and his minions in the House Agricultural Committee to call for "wholesale institutional reform" of the Legislature. While I don't disagree with that on its face in the least, he also appears to give in slightly to the siren song for a full-time legislature. In no way should we have a full-time legislature in the State of Tennessee, for the longer the legislature remains in session the more mischief they will bring about. This is true no matter which party is in control-and yes, I would say this even if I were among their number.
It is vitally important that the citizen-legislature element of our system be maintained. The Plaza is a place with a culture all its own, with factions and cliques that develop in their own way. All parliamentary bodies in the world are like this, for such is the nature of the business of State. By itself this is neither good nor bad-but because of that reality, the longer that members are in Nashville (unless they are actually from the Nashville area) the more likely they will become disconnected from the people that they came there to serve. They do this without trying to do it, and might even do it with the best of intentions. For this reason the law must be maintained that guarantees that Tennessee has a part-time legislature.
The problems Kleinheider speaks of are very real, however. In my mind the biggest difficulty is with how the General Assembly handles its calendar. The legislature convenes in January and proceeds to spend entire legislative days on feel-good resolutions and relatively uncontroversial bills that pass 99-0 or 97-2. Committees roll important bills from one week to the next-sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes because certain members want to put off serious debate. The more that bills get rolled, however, the more bills get pushed off until closer to the end of a session when there is less time to debate them or have serious discussion about them. Members have less knowledge of what they are voting on, and the backs of legislators are against the wall when this point is reached because there are so many important pieces of legislation and so little time to deliberate upon them.
God forbid, after all, that a House floor session last three or four hours because there needs to be an honest-to-goodness debate over several pieces of legislation.
I generally agree with Jason Mumpower that this is a function of long-time Democratic control and the current calendar system is designed to maintain control over the process. Keep in mind that Ron Ramsey, much as he might like to run things differently, can't really do it because 16-16-1 doesn't really give him the numbers. On top of that, the House and Senate have to act in unison on calendar matters most of the time because both have deadlines to meet, especially where the budget is concerned. If the Republicans come to control both Houses of the General Assembly, we will be able to see how serious they are about reform by the changes they make in the legislative calendar.
On top of all that, I do think it needs to be made easier for the average Joe to run for our citizen-legislature. I must freely admit that I favor a reasonable increase in the legislative salary from the current $18,150 per year to around $21,000 per year. Why? Running for the legislature is hard enough, but if a real "Joe Sixpack" is elected, he has to interrupt his job and/or livelihood, leave his family and his interests at home, and in many cases travel half way across the State and be in Nashville, and make the trip several times a year. Yes, they get a very nice perdiem for showing up, but the perdiem just about covers the cost of a room and their meals (people who live in Nashville don't realize it, but Nashville is not cheap for those of us from East Tennessee, for example). With the new (and very justifiable) ethics reforms, no lobbyist will be buying them dinner-they are on their own. I do think, however, that a third party neutral group needs to be who has control over legislators' salaries and benefits, not the legislators themselves-that is the ultimate conflict of interest.
These are just a few of my ideas for reform-and they are just ideas, but the basic concept of a citizen-legislature really needs to be preserved.
Labels: Tennessee politics