Is common sense making a comeback at the Capitol? That's the question startled political watchers are asking after the states' rights crowd, which has had its way with the legislature since the Republican takeover, faced resistance twice in a single week.
First, one of the tea party's favorite ideas — the Health Care Compact — failed in the House Insurance and Banking Committee on a tie vote. Under this compact, Congress would send billions of dollars — $11 billion in Tennessee's case — to a bunch of states that banded together to run Medicaid and Medicare as they saw fit. It's a bizarre idea that burst forth from the fevered imaginations of the right wing during the debate over the Affordable Care Act.
The vote was 9-9, with four Republicans voting against it. One of them — Franklin Rep. Charles Sargent — pointed out there's no reason to pass it. Barring a complete tea party takeover in Washington, the Health Care Compact won't happen.
"Why are we putting something on the books that does nothing?" Sargent asked the sponsor, Lebanon Rep. Mark Pody, who couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer.
The vote not only laid bare Republican infighting but also might have shown that Democrats still hold some slight ability to affect public policy. In last year's elections, they attacked Republicans for voting for the Health Care Compact in the 2012 session. Democrats pointed out that the sick and elderly soon would lose coverage as the cost of care went up but the federal money didn't.
Later in the week down the hall in the Senate Judiciary Committee, lawmakers beat back Sen. Mae Beavers' latest bright idea — at least temporarily. It purports to assert state sovereignty by making it illegal for federal agents in Tennessee to enforce federal laws restricting ownership or production of semiautomatic weapons or high-capacity magazines.
June Griffin, an unusual person and perennial political candidate, testified in support of Beavers' bill. Wearing a fur hat and carrying a Bible, she invoked the book of Isaiah, inviolate rights and the powers of sheriffs and constables as a bemused audience watched in the hearing room.
"I fear what will come under God if we do not get these guarantees from our legislators," she said.
The committee's chairman, Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, patiently explained to Beavers why her bill is unconstitutional, and so did another Republican, Maryville Sen. Doug Overbey. Beavers acknowledged she'd never heard of the Nullification Crisis of 1832, which settled the question of federal supremacy. But after Kelsey told her about it, she said she disagrees with the outcome.
"The federal government cannot make laws that go against our Second Amendment and try to enforce them," she said.
"I know many of you are lawyers. You've been to law school and you think the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of many of these laws. I don't believe that."
Justices have "essentially set themselves up as a dictatorship within the federal government," said Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. "Generation after generation, we have just accepted that."
No one wants to vote against this bill because then, in their next re-election campaigns, someone will accuse them of favoring gun control or scheming with President Obama to confiscate our weapons. The committee finally voted 5-4 to postpone voting until the state attorney general could give an opinion on the bill's constitutionality. That opinion didn't take long to research. It arrived this week, and predictably the AG's office said the bill violates the Constitution's Supremacy Clause.
The pressure's on to pry Beavers' bill out of committee. The Tennessee Firearms Association sent an urgent action alert to its members. In the alert, association director John Harris called Kelsey "delusional" because he refuses to ignore the outcome of the Civil War and pretend that states can nullify federal laws.
"Sen. Brian Kelsey explains the Supremacy Clause for 'the rest of us' — be afraid, be very afraid," the alert began.
Call Kelsey, Harris urged his members, "refrain from laughing and hanging up. Try to encourage him to vote YES on SB0250 to move it to a full debate in the Tennessee Senate."
Harris also slapped Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey for removing Beavers "as the seasoned and respected chair of the Senate Judiciary" at the beginning of this session and replacing her with Kelsey. "It's proving in short order to have been a bad decision on his part," Harris wrote.
Harris went on to deride Kelsey, a right-winger himself, as a "mini-me" of Barack Obama.
"One must wonder why Congress even needs state governments since it has, under Brian Kelsey's view of constitutional law, complete and total supremacy as to all issues on which it might seek to enact laws which necessarily renders the mere existence of state or local governments a meaningless event of no constitutional significance."
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