These days the Republicans have a supermajority, filibuster-proof, relatively homogeneous group of conservatives in charge of the Legislature. There are two types—conservative and more conservative. They can really do whatever they damn well please and I think it pleases them to do quite a bit.
I suspect they have only just begun.
They have begun transferring power from the governor’s office to themselves as they assume more responsibility. By the time Gov. Bill Haslam leaves office, the governor’s job may be reduced to ribbon-cutting and the state of the state address.
Under the state constitution, the governor is relatively weak. If you have the votes to pass a bill, you have the votes to override a gubernatorial veto. It takes but a simple majority. If you have a two-thirds majority, as Republicans do now, you can even have some members respect the governor’s rejection of the bill and still have the votes to override.
A governor in Tennessee needs a strong personality and the ability to play hardball with individual members in order to keep the Legislature in check. I don’t sense any Republican legislators being scared of Haslam.
I think you can expect the Legislature to have a major role going forward in picking state school board members, members of the textbook commission, various boards. They already control members of the Judicial Performance Commission, and if a constitutional amendment passes they will have the final say in who gets appointed to state appeals courts, including the state Supreme Court.
They are trying to get the power to appoint the state attorney general.
So what happens when the Legislature appoints the attorney general and has veto power over who gets on the court and then takes away gubernatorial power? We won’t have three branches of government; we will have one branch of government running the other two.
Haslam’s voucher plan had to be withdrawn last year and it’s getting a rewrite this year. The Legislature has sent a firm message that Medicaid (TennCare) expansion is a non-starter.
In past years, the Legislature has not exercised a lot of control over the governor’s office for a variety of reasons. When the Democrats were in charge, their power relied on a coalition of rural whites and urban black legislators and it was necessary to have discipline to keep that power intact. That allowed the speakers to work with the governor and then enforce whatever decisions were made.
Speakers now still have a lot of influence, but they can’t rule with the iron hand of a speaker like Ned McWherter or Jimmy Naifeh.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is often criticized by liberals as being the real governor as he exercises more power. House Speaker Beth Harwell is also powerful, though she seems more likely to try and work with Haslam and keep the peace.
It might be better for the Republican Party and the state if the Republicans just hold what they have or even lose a few seats this coming election year. It might make them realize they are not invulnerable and maybe they need to exercise some restraint and discipline. It may lead to a slowdown in the effort to transfer power from the executive to the legislative branch. If they are fighting among themselves, they may not be able to make a concerted effort to grab more power.
The result of one-party rule is invariably the development of factions. In the early days of the Republic, it was the Northeast fighting against the Virginians. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams and the Federalists versus Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans. It led to the formation of political parties. You are beginning to see some factions developing in the Republican supermajority. Watch the Republican primaries this year and I think you will see incumbent Republicans being challenged by conservatives.
Unless factions break up the lock-step move toward legislative supremacy, or if Haslam doesn’t do something to rein in legislators, we may find the next governor with no power at all.