Getting Attention: How Do You Get Washington to Listen to State Issues?

• Since the 1970s, with the possible exception of Don Sundquist and Jim Sasser, everyone elected to statewide office in Tennessee has been a millionaire. In the last decade they have been multimillionaires—capable of writing $3 million checks to their campaigns.

• A common complaint of state and local officials is unfunded federal mandates.

• There is a feeling that Washington doesn’t work anymore; Congress is trapped inside the Beltway Bubble and out of touch with the folks back home. Nothing gets done, though polls show the American people would prefer some bipartisan solutions rather than continuing crises and stalemates.

• We’ve been doing it so long no one even asks the question any longer, but why do the taxpayers pay for political parties to select their candidates for the fall election? After all, that is the purpose of a primary—not to elect someone to office but to select the candidate the political parties propose for the real election.

I don’t know if state Sen. Frank Niceley’s proposed solution to these issues is the right one, but it should start a conversation. As usual, the Strawberry Plains Republican is thinking outside the box. What he proposes is that the Republican caucus of the state Legislature pick the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate and the Democratic caucus pick the Democratic candidate for the fall general election.

Until 1913, the state legislatures appointed U.S. Senators. These senators were in Washington to represent their state. The constitutional amendment that called for the popular election of the senators left it to the states to determine the candidates who would run against each other. Different states do it different ways. Popular election was to stop the practice of legislatures just sending rich, influential guys to the U.S. Senate. How’s that working out?

Nothing prevents the political parties from holding a convention to pick candidates for the Senate. There is also no constitutional bar to the party members of the state legislature picking the candidate for the general election. If legislators pick bad candidates the party would lose the seat. If skulduggery is suspected, legislators face re-election and could be voted out of office.

Should this method become commonplace among the states, you would see U.S. senators paying a lot more attention to the folks back home and those unfunded mandates would come to a screeching halt. Washington would start to pay a lot more attention to the problems and the taxes and budgets of their state governments—from Medicaid to highway funds.

Right now the candidates are being picked in another type of caucus. The informal caucuses are cocktail parties in Signal Mountain, Sequoyah Hills, Belle Meade, and Germantown. That’s where the early money gets raised to establish the front-runner and hitch up the bandwagon.

Does anyone believe that there is anyone in Tennessee who can defeat U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in his re-election campaign? (Alexander would be exempt from the new method. It isn’t aimed at him or any one in particular, but it is merely to change the system in the future.)

Did U.S. Sen. Bob Corker have a serious opponent? Well, the Democrats did pick Mark Clayton in a primary and then had to disavow him. Could the Democratic caucus of the state Legislature have picked a better candidate with a better chance of defeating Corker? I think you would admit they could have.

Tennessee has demonstrated in the recent past that they don’t have a problem with people being appointed. The Legislature decreed that, contrary to any local opinion, school superintendents will be appointed by the school board and no longer elected.

The state constitution decrees that judges be elected. But the Legislature passed a law to have appeals court justices appointed by the governor.

So if we can appoint people to office without an election, then why can’t we have the Legislature at least appoint the candidates for office?

There may be other solutions to get Washington to pay more attention to the folks back home. Perhaps a convention system, or a retention election. Let’s hear them. Start the conversation.

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