One Party is No Party: Haslam, Ramsey, Harwell Either Unite or Lose Control of State Government

Post-session commentary has focused on the failure of major bills despite the Republicans having a super-majority in the state Legislature. It was bad and it could get worse as there appears to be a major split between the House and Senate leadership.

As to the Republican super-majority? One-party rule means no-party rule.

That’s the lesson you learned if you grew up in the Democratic Solid South, when Republicans were nonexistent in public office. In the old days in the Deep South, the Democratic primary and a subsequent run-off were the only elections that ever mattered.

So did the Democrats just do anything they wanted—since they held all legislative seats, the leadership, and the governor’s office? Of course not. They were a compilation of factions, usually centered on a particular political leader. The Big Jim Folsom Democrats, or the George Wallace Democrats, or the Albert Brewer Democrats in Alabama, for instance.

The one-party Republican rule of the House, Senate, and governor’s office resulted in the failure of Gov. Bill Haslam’s education voucher plan. Ditto Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s plan to redraw judicial districts. House Speaker Beth Harwell couldn’t get a state board to approve charter schools through the Senate. The ultra-conservatives also failed to outlaw United Nations visits, authorize the arrest of FBI agents, or enact a proposal to cut welfare payments to parents of failing school children.

Aside from factions within each House, there was a major blow-up between the House and Senate. It has reached the point that each chamber’s Republicans will do their own fund-raising.

Tennessee, historically, was not a one-party state like much of the South. Though Republicans were in the minority, they did control large portions of East Tennessee and held seats in the Legislature. The Democrats ruled in the House with a coalition of rural Democrats and urban black Democrats. But there was always the danger that conservative East Tennessee Republicans could unite with conservative rural Democrats and take over.

It forced the Democrats to exercise discipline. The Republicans? Not hardly.

The likelihood of any of the current crop of Republicans forming a coalition with urban Democrats is about as likely as the Vols going to the SEC football championship game this year. But, as I wrote some months ago, the Legislature now has three parties. The Democrats. The Republicans. And a group of ultra-conservative Republicans often just referred to as the Tea Party.

It is possible to enforce party discipline in this Legislature. The speakers control committee assignments and the coveted chairmanship of committees. They can put the hammer down on recalcitrant members who go rogue. But they have to be careful. When there is a large faction of members, like the ultra-conservatives, the speakers run the risk of a challenge to their own positions. They hold office next session, but have to be re-elected the next year.

Without the fear of losing control, Republicans have little incentive to toe the line on votes. If the Republicans had a narrow vote majority in either House they might be able to see that they need to hang together, as Ben Franklin would say, or they might hang separately in the next election.

The most dangerous fracture in the majority at present is the rift between Ramsey and Harwell. It is also a dangerous fracture for Haslam’s initiatives next year. He will be bringing back important legislation, including an education package. It would take a concerted effort and a united front by Haslam, Ramsey, and Harwell to bring discipline to the Republican super-majority. Ramsey and Harwell could fire at least one committee chair as an example to the rest.

But it requires them to be in agreement on just what they want to accomplish. If they don’t present a united front, they need to be prepared to stand aside and let the members run amok.

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