frank_talk (2007-15)

Civics 101

Do we really want kids to know how a bill becomes a law?

by Frank Cagle

Fall 2008--"Welcome to a new school year, children, and to our new course this year, called Civics, a semester-long course mandated by the Tennessee General Assembly.

"Our first block of instruction is called 'How a Bill Becomes a Law.' Some of you may grow up to be the people who write our laws and this course should be invaluable. If you want to write laws, however, you have to prepare yourself.

"Not just anybody can become a lobbyist.

"There is only one qualification for being a lobbyist, however, and that is securing a client. You are familiar with the Outback Bowl, the Blockbuster Bowl and the Nextel Cup. Well, just like sporting events, laws need sponsors, too. Somebody has to pay your salary in order for you to write bills and pass them.

"Once you have clients, and they tell you what new laws Tennessee needs, you are ready to start.

"In the General Assembly, as with college football, you must make sure the players on the field retain their amateur status. You can't introduce your bill. You get a state senator and a state representative to do it for you. They will run the plays, while you coach from the sidelines. Like a college basketball coach, you are not allowed on the floor. You have to stay behind the rails alongside the floor and use hand signals to call the plays. If you are lucky, you will have a good floor leader who can call an audible when necessary.

"There was a time when you could reward good players with whiskey and prime rib for a job well done, but the NCAA, er, I mean the Ethics Commission, has banned gifts and incentives. All your money now will go into recruiting good players with something called campaign contributions that convince the fans, er, voters, back home to send them to Nashville to do your good work.

"You should not assume, of course, that the amateurs are not allowed to introduce their own bills. They do. The public needs something to talk about while your important bills are winding through the committee system. These legislator bills have several things in common. They are not likely to pass; they are not intended to pass; they provide amusement for the fans, and they are handy to use in brochures for future political campaigns. They also tend to be stupid.

"It is essential that these bills only affect the poor, the disadvantaged or any minority group unlikely to have a lobbyist or be able to raise funds to oppose you in the next election. There is no down side to oppressing the poor, a minority or people who lack the ability to fund a PAC.

"You might propose that poor mothers on food stamps be drug tested in order to get the funds to feed their kids. This may be a form of child abuse, but it's popular with the people who vote and call radio talk shows. But if a young mother smokes a joint, her kids deserve to go hungry, right?

"You might require the Commissioner of Education to define the nature of God, the origin of the universe and explain how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

"A bill to post the Ten Commandments is always good for a week's worth of amusement.

"Testing is always good. How about requiring HIV tests for pimps? You didn't know we needed this vital legislation did you? Unfortunately there isn't any money in the bill for outreach, so it's not clear how you find the pimps and get them to sign up.

"Or you might introduce a bill to call for death certificates for fetuses. Death certificates are invaluable for settling a fetus' estate or collecting on the fetus' life insurance.

"Those bills are the sideshow garnering media and voter attention. It deters people from paying attention to the bills that affect their lives and detracts attention from the bills that might be popular but afflict a particularly powerful lobby. They also require little study or thought on the part of legislators. Studying the cable bill, insurance reform or the budget can cause headaches

"We hope to have state Sen. Tim Burchett, state Sen. Raymond Finney and state Rep. Stacy Campfield in during the course of the semester as guest speakers.

"Well, children we have begun the block of instruction on how a bill becomes law. We will move onto killer subcommittees, stacking committees and how to write a budget in a locked back room.

"Then our next block will focus on local government. It will focus on the Knox County Commission and explain the advantages of appointed office holders, nepotism and the horrors of terms limits."

(Are we really sure we want to introduce Civics into the classroom? Wouldn't sex education be less damaging to our youth?)

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at .