An Open Door

Republicans could gain control of the state House, but why should you care?

If four state House seats shift from Democrats to Republicans this November, then Republicans take control. Some traditionally safe seats for Democrats in conservative areas will be up for grabs with the retirement of stalwarts like Randy Rinks, John Hood, and Frank Buck.

Hope springs eternal for the Republicans, who have been frustrated in capturing the state House even though the state has trended Republican, elected Republican senators, governors, and congressmen—and even though Republicans have at last captured the state Senate. Control, money, and re-apportionment have allowed Speaker Jimmy Naifeh to maintain his majority while Republicans have made gains in every other aspect of the state's political life. Are the Republicans again vainly getting all worked up about the prospect of a takeover?

Hillary Clinton most likely would have carried Tennessee in November. Her husband did it twice; John McCain couldn't do it in the primary. But Barack Obama? If Harold Ford Jr., a conservative-talking candidate from Tennessee, couldn't win his Senate race campaigning here daily, then a liberal from Chicago who is unlikely to campaign here at all wouldn't seem to be a good bet either.

Republican legislators have also been told by many of their rural, conservative Democratic colleagues that they themselves will be voting for McCain, rather than Obama, and many of their constituents will be doing so as well. If rural Democrats across the state are going to vote for McCain, might they also vote for the Republican legislative candidate as well?

Obama may do well in metro areas—where Ford also scored large numbers—but if he is unable to move the rural districts, then the seats down the ticket may be in play. These circumstances have some Republicans quietly thrilled at their prospects. Perhaps they are not just being hopeless optimists.

So maybe the Republicans CAN capture the House. Or, with a couple of seats, force a coalition. Why should you care? Good question. Some Republicans have been asking why they fought for so many years to capture the state Senate. Notice any revolutionary change in the state budget? Your taxes? The size of government? Didn't the Legislature blow a surplus last year, allow Gov. Phil Bredesen to over-estimate revenue, and wind up having to cut the budget this year?

Set aside whether it matters if Republicans or Democrats control the state House of Representatives. Think of it in terms of the "ins" versus the "outs." The Democrats have controlled the House (except for one brief, weird period decades ago) since the Civil War. The lobbyists, the entrenched powerful committee chairs, and the Democratic leadership have a machine in place that exerts enormous control over state government. The special-interest groups have free rein to screw consumers, from forbidding wine in grocery stores to allowing unfettered payday loans to special tax breaks.

A change in parties would blow up the place, cause a major realignment, and provide some new faces in the committee chairs. This is not to say the Republicans are more virtuous. But it would take them a long time to re-establish the well-oiled machine currently in place. We might get a break and have some real reform for a change.

Or we could enter a period when control might shift back and forth between the parties and no one would be able to establish the iron control that has been exerted in modern times by former Speaker Ned McWherter and his heir, Naifeh.

The most pressing need at the General Assembly is reform of the lobbying process. Quite frankly, the lobbyists run the place. They write the bills, they have them introduced, and—to no public outcry—they meet behind closed doors, with the blessing of the House Speaker, to write the final bill.

Go back and read the history of the AT&T cable bill this last session. Note the lack of any outcry when industry lobbyists met behind closed doors, without any consumer representation, and wrote a bill rubber-stamped by the General Assembly.

It's standard operating procedure in Nashville. It's time for a revolution.