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AG on the Bubble

Even as Robert Cooper acts against the latest airline merger, his status is under question.

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The pivotal and often overlooked role of Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper in the state's affairs was highlighted again Tuesday with his announcement that Tennessee would join a multistate coalition opposing a proposed merger of U.S. Airways and American Airlines.

Cooper's action aligned Tennessee with Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and the District of Columbia in joining a U.S. Department of Justice antitrust action challenging the merger in federal court.

"Studies show that Tennessee's four major airports in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga will experience fewer flights to certain destinations, and travelers will pay more for remaining flights," Cooper said. "If this merger is completed, consumers will face decreased competition and increased prices, because airlines can cut service and raise prices with less fear of competitive responses from rivals."

Cooper's statement noted that, while American Airlines has sustained something of a comeback into profitability after a filing for bankruptcy, U.S. Airways, its would-be partner, would be likely to see a drastic reduction in the number of flights and destinations it would bring to a merger. Memphis would be particularly hard hit in such an eventuality, in that U.S. Airways flights have constituted something of a fallback means of transportation to East Coast sites for local travelers in the wake of cutbacks in service here by Delta Airlines, which recently announced it would cease to employ Memphis International Airport as a hub.

Cooper's involvement of Tennessee in the legal action against the American-U.S. Airways merger amounts to a timely defense of this city's efforts to maintain and bolster its threatened status in the national passenger-line network. And it is a reminder of the value to Tennessee's citizens of a politically independent state attorney general.

Unlike most other states, the attorney general in Tennessee is appointed by the state Supreme Court, not by the governor or the legislature and not by direct election. This method of appointment would seem to emphasize the importance of the attorney general's legal credentials and minimize the impact of politics per se in determining who holds this vital position.

But, as The Tennessee Journal noted in its lead story last week, there is increasing pressure in state government circles to change the method of appointing Tennessee's chief legal officer. State senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) introduced a bill in the 2013 legislative session for a constitutional amendment mandating direct election of the state attorney general.

Kelsey's bill is likely to be reintroduced in the 2014 session of the General Assembly. And another bill, brought by Representative Mike Bell (R-Riceville), would call for a different constitutional change, one that would empower the legislature itself to appoint an attorney general.

Cooper has angered the Republican majority in the legislature by several of his actions — two of which were his refusal to join with other Southern states in challenging Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act and his opinion against the constitutionality of the first measure to allow Shelby County's six municipal suburbs to vote for separate school districts. (A 2013 measure to that effect passed muster with the attorney general.)

 In Tennessee, the attorney general's opinions do not have binding authority, but they are usually respected by the courts and by the state's legal community. Any change in the way the attorney general is appointed would have serious repercussions.

Steve Cohen's appearance last week before a luncheon meeting of the Memphis Rotary Club was basically a case of dog-bites-man, that phrase being an established metaphor of sorts for things returning to normal — "man-bites-dog" being the converse expression, indicative of something extraordinary, like the run of circumstance the 9th District congressman had just passed through.

Cohen's appearance before the Rotarians at the University Club came mere days after the local flap generated by former chief aide Randy Wade's disclosure that a falling-out between the two over a public candidate endorsement by Wade, and one, moreover, for a candidate running against the congressman's own choice, had resulted in Cohen's referring the matter to the House Ethics Committee, which duly disapproved of Wade's action.

And the speech was but a fortnight from a national gossip-fest over CNN's revelation of a DNA test invalidating the congressman's announcement last February that he had a daughter from a long-ago liaison. That announcement had been prompted by an intercepted tweet from Cohen to the young woman during President Obama's State of the Union address.

There had been a media-made tsimmes over that tweet and another some months later over a tweet from Cohen somewhat enthusiastically commending a performance by pop chanteuse Cyndi Lauper at a White House celebration of Memphis music.

The congressman and a small retinue of aides that came with him to Rotary were briefed and ready in case any of those matters came up in the Q&A following his remarks, but none of them did.

Cohen therefore had an opportunity to do what members of Congress customarily do — point with pride or view with alarm, as the case might be, regarding matters of state and public policy.

ln the course of doing so, he was able to cite some personal achievements, including his efforts on the House transportation committee on behalf of the awarding of a "Tiger grant" by the U.S. Department of Transportation that will result in the rehabbing of the Harahan Bridge across the Mississippi and the improvement of connections between downtown Memphis and West Memphis, Arkansas.

He cited what he said were his good relations with recently retired secretary of transportation Ray LaHood, with the Obama administration in general, and with Tennessee's two Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

"There are opportunities to get things done in this Congress, though this is a know-nothing Congress, and I'm in the minority," said Cohen, a Democrat.

One problem he cited was the virtual abolition of congressional "earmarks" in recent years. The term refers to outlays for local development projects that once were routinely added to the national budget, district by district, at the request of congressmen representing those areas. Such appropriations came under increasing attack as "pork" and have been severely restricted in recent years by changes in House rules.

Cohen pointed out what he saw as the negative consequences of that fact — and a corresponding enhancement of the executive branch's dominance over the legislative branch.

"Who knows better than the congressman at home?" Cohen said. "With earmarks, there was something for everybody." This was notably so in the case of infrastructure projects, he said. Cohen bemoaned the decline of the nation's infrastructure — once "tops in the world" and now falling dangerously into dilapidation — tracing that phenomenon directly to the cutback in earmarks.

Another consequence of the curtailing of earmarks, Cohen said, has been the much-observed loss of influence of House speaker John Boehner among his GOP rank and file: "The power that the speakers had over the years were earmarks. Speaker Boehner has lost a lot of his authority."

Another fact deplored by Cohen was the Supreme Court's recent invalidation of Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This was the portion that required several Deep South states to seek Department of Justice authorization for any changes in their requirements for voting.

Calling that decision an "amazing" one in the 50th anniversary year of the 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Cohen said he thought the states that had problems with voting rights in 1965 still had them and that, while the court's decision left Congress free to reinstigate Section 4, it was doubtful that the Republican majority in the House would permit it.

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