Broken Speaker: What Happens When Special-Interest PACs Replace Legislative Leaders?

House Speaker John Boehner's problem in the middle of a government shutdown he didn't want is that he no longer has the power to punish or to reward. In the old days, a House Speaker could use his authority to punish recalcitrant members or reward them with earmarks for projects back in the district.

Gerrymandering has created Republican districts that make members impervious to challenge from their political party. The only re-election challenge they fear is a well-funded opponent from the right. Special-interest-group PAC money has replaced the speaker as a source of fear.

Budget constraints and the elimination of earmarks for special projects has reduced the speaker's ability to reward "good" behavior. And the days when a congressman would brag about a big government check for the district are also rare. Such announcements these days are usually met back home with fiery denunciations from tea party members as wasteful government spending.

What happens when legislators are more afraid of special-interest PACs than their leaders?

In Nashville, the Republicans are in control of the Senate, the House, and the governor's office. This is not like Washington where the Republicans control the House and the Democrats control the Senate. The House districts are drawn to protect incumbent Republicans from challenge. Unless they offend a powerful and well-funded special-interest group.

Let's recall House Republican Caucus Chair Debra Maggart was defeated last election by an opponent funded by the NRA.

Michelle Rhee's education PAC was the biggest contributor to legislative races in Tennessee last time around and will likely be a major player this next year. Who do legislators listen to on education issues? The governor and legislative leaders or to Rhee? There hasn't been any friction thus far because Gov. Bill Haslam's education goals have been out of Rhee's playbook. But what if their interests diverge?

Let's recall that Haslam's voucher plan was scuttled in the Senate last year.

Last session, both House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey supported wine in grocery stores and the measure failed in a House committee. I can't imagine a bill favored by former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh being killed by a Democrat. Said Democrat would have been drawn and quartered, metaphorically speaking.

The governor and the speakers are conservatives, but they aren't as conservative as a rather large block of members, especially in the House. It is going to occur to some of the House members that they can run wild without fear of retribution.

The days are over when a Gov. Ned McWherter could call a legislator in and show him a picture of a road grader and tell him, if he didn't shape up, it was the last one he would ever see in his district.

The speakers still have a lot of power, of course. The biggest is the ability to appoint committee chairs. They can always replace a committee chair for not passing a bill they support. But it's a drastic step, causing lots of hard feelings and it is not something to be done lightly or too often.

The House Republican caucus also remains as a reliable source of funds for member re-election campaigns. Control of the caucus money is one stick the speakers still wield. Unless the PACs get to the point where they can control just as much money.

But the caucus has to look to all of the members' races while the PACs can pick and choose (i.e. Maggart).

At this point the Republicans are mostly on the same page and divisions have been few. But next session you can expect a major split over the Common Core curriculum. Social conservatives, Rhee-ites, Haslam, the Chamber of Commerce, SCORE and the TEA will be just some of the voices on either side.

The carnage won't be as bad as Washington, but some of the same forces will be at work in Nashville this time around.


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