by Jackson Baker
Has this thing happened from the top down or the bottom up, this new rage against the government which goes by the name of Tea Party but doesn't exactly feel like a party to those on the receiving end of its grievances?
One of those is 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, who encountered a giant rally of Tea Partiers in Washington recently protesting the newly enacted health-care bill and came away thinking of "robes and hoods" and "George Wallace's fan club" and seeing it all as "a very sad scene on America, a commentary on America and a scary scene."
That's part (and maybe the mildest part) of how Cohen described the phenomenon this past weekend to political podcasters Cenk Uygur and Michael Shure, who broadcast as "The Young Turks."
Democrat Cohen made an effort to classify the Tea Partiers in conventional terms, as enemies of "diversity" and, ultimately, as tools of the Republican Party. His criticism was enough to enrage members of several area Tea Party groups who turned up outside the Federal Building Monday afternoon to picket Cohen and accuse him, at a press conference, of being the intolerant one himself.
Said Mark Herr, a spokesperson for the Mid-South Tea Party which, along with the Fayette County and Tipton County branches of the fledgling (and, really, somewhat amorphous) organization, called Monday's protest: "Representative Steve Cohen's recent hate-filled comments, discriminating, denigrating, and demonizing the members of the Tea Party movement, are unfounded, very disappointing, and, in our opinion, violate our civil rights."
When a TV newswoman kept spunkily pointing out that the protesters Monday were indeed as all-white as Cohen had seemed to imply about their national brethren, Herr remonstrated thusly: "Well, I wouldn't join the Tea Party either if I was told they were shameful, despicable, racist, right-wing, clinging to their religion and their weapons, astro-turfing, teabagging, racist rednecks who hate a black man in the White House. I wouldn't join the Tea Party, either."
So how do the self-professed Tea Partiers see themselves?
Here's how Herr put it on Monday: The Tea Party concept was "born out of concern that the people's government is slowly dissolving and destroying the principles of liberty and freedom espoused in the Declaration of Independence and supposedly preserved and protected by the United States Constitution and is gradually legislating and implementing philosophies and social structures counterintuitive to those founding principles."
Which may be a tad grandiose but, in fairness, can hardly be called a rant.
Concerning its alleged connections to the Republican Party, Donn Janes, a Tea Party member running as an independent candidate for the 8th District congressional seat, was disparaging of Republicans trying to talk the talk, including the three GOP candidates — Stephen Fincher, Ron Kirkland, and George Flinn — seeking to represent the 8th: "I don't think they share the same concerns that I do. They mimic the Republican talking points. It's all aimed at capturing the conservative voice. ... The conservative label's been overused and abused. The Tea Party movement holds to the core values: limited government, fiscal responsibility, and strong national defense and adherence to the Constitution. That sets my campaign apart from theirs."
Janes not only sounds sincere, he has a certain logic on his side. To the extent that he does well in the fall election, he will doubtless take votes away from the ultimate Republican nominee and, in that way, help out Roy Herron, the state senator who will bear the Democratic standard this fall.
Even so, just as the Tea Partiers made common cause with the Republicans in Washington who opposed President Obama and the Democrats on health care, so have Tea Partiers made common cause with the Republicans in Nashville who seek to nullify the federal health-care bill in Tennessee through legal challenge and legislation.
Generally, the Tea Partiers agree that the federal government is appropriating too much power. Specifically, they rebel at the provisions of the bill mandating the purchase of health insurance by individuals.
In recent weeks five bills — all GOP-sponsored, all favored by Tea Partiers — have been marching double-time toward passage in Nashville, leap-frogging committees and skipping the usual steps required of normal legislation. All were on their way to full House Commerce Committee approval on Tuesday of this week — which was but a hop-skip-and-jump from forthcoming votes on the House floor.
The bills are HB3433, HJR745, HB2622, HB2417, and HJR722. It helps a little for those unversed in the arcana of legislative shorthand to know what the initials mean. HB equals House Bill, and HJR means House Joint Resolution. It helps a little more to know that HB2417 (which has a Senate equivalent, SB3177) would allow Tennesseans to purchase health insurance across state lines — one of the debated provisions in Congress which Republicans professed themselves willing to accede to. That bill is sponsored by state senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown.
Of the four remaining bills, the two House Joint Resolutions are both by state representative Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet).
HJR745 proposes an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting "laws or rules that would compel any person, employer, or health-care provider to participate in any health-care system" — in effect, putting Tennessee's constitution directly in the path of the 2010 federal health-care act, which imposes mandates for purchase of health insurance.
HJR 722 "[e]stablishes a free enterprise system of government." (More on this below.)
HB2622, by Lynn, "prohibits the legislature from requiring any person to participate in any health-care system or plan" and is a statutory version of HJR745.
Finally, HB3433 is the House equivalent of Senate Bill 3498, by state senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), enacting the "Tennessee Health Freedom Act," which does the same thing as Lynn's HB2622, which duplicates it in word and deed. Like Lynn's bill, Beavers' bill requires that Tennessee join the ranks of those states which are currently committed to challenging the federal health-care act and directs the state attorney general to file a like challenge.
It helps to know that nobody — not the sponsors or the legislators intending to vote for it — really believes that state law can trump federal law (nor that Lynn's constitutional amendments can outweigh the federal Constitution).
And it helps to know that Lynn and Beavers — both from the same Wilson County municipality just east of Nashville — are both candidates this year for Beavers' state Senate seat, and, thus, a bit of rivalry attaches to the matter of which of these bills would become a Tennessee statute.
Representative Charles Curtiss, the Sparta Democrat who chairs the commerce industrial impact subcommittee that cleared all the foregoing bills last Wednesday, somewhat abashedly explained in advance to his members that "it's just not our responsibility to show a preference" but confessed that, ultimately, "only one of these two bills will pass, because they both do exactly the same thing."
This nettled Maryville Republican Joe McCord, who complained, "It is our responsibility not to dump things onto the full committee. We're supposed to be a filtering process."
Toward the end of Wednesday's meeting, McCord renewed his criticism, and Curtiss responded frankly: "We've got two ladies, both of them running for the same Senate seat. Each one of them is sponsoring various pieces of legislation that's before this committee today. I'm not afraid of anybody, but I'm not going to be jap-slapping women. I'm not getting involved in that. And so there's no way for us to resolve that. The only thing we can do is hope to God they work it out. But I guarantee you, the House ain't passing them both. I'm not getting into that, and I don't plan on getting into it."
In any event, both passed the committee by voice vote — a term which, by all rights, should also extend to the spectators who jammed into the committee room in Legislative Plaza, as well as to those who flooded the hallways outside, following events inside on a jumbo TV monitor.
These were virtually all self-declared Tea Partiers, members of the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition — although there was some doubt as to the degree to which their aims and membership coincided. Of one thing there was no doubt: the extent to which their presence and high volume impacted the proceedings.
Curtiss opened his subcommittee meeting with these words: "The first thing I want to say is, I want to welcome all of our guests. You're doing great, the way it is. As long as people can come and go, just keep me an alley way on each door." (To his credit, when an outburst or two got out of hand, Curtiss would apologize that "I can't do much about those in the hall" but would threaten to clear the room.)
There was raucous applause both inside the room and in the hallway whenever a subcommittee member — such as Representative Eric Swafford (R-Pikeville) — engaged in stentorian rhetoric on behalf of one of the health-care measures and loud booing whenever a member — such as Representative JoAnne Favors (D-Chattanooga) — took issue with one of the bills.
Attempting to counter Lynn's assertion that "over-consumption" of health care and government-sponsored medical measures had been the culprits in rising health-care costs, Favors argued, "Health-care consumption has increased because we as a civilized nation have been involved in public health. We work very diligently to encourage people to do more preventive health. ... Nobody is over-consuming health care. Nobody just wakes up in the morning and says, 'I'm going to the doctor.' Nobody does that."
Favors had generated a good deal of hostile murmuring inside and yelling in the corridor already, but she got both up to fever pitch with her assertion that "nobody is going to lose their rights" as a result of the federal health-care bill. A shout came from the hallway: "You lie!," shadowing the epithet voiced by South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson at President Obama during the State of the Union address. [corrected from "Alabama Republican Joe Wilson"]
"It is so unfair to the citizens to have them [the protesters] here today to have them all upset. So unfair," concluded Favors.
She was not the only adverse voice heard by the bill's proponents. Former speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) ventured to suggest to Lynn that her amendment to create a free enterprise system was superfluous in that one such already existed.
And he strove to correct her when she declared that TennCare, the state's ever-shrinking version of Medicaid, was limited to "the poor." As Naifeh noted, TennCare coverage is guaranteed for all the state's children and for women's pregnancy care.
When the subcommittee meeting concluded, with all the controversial measures favored by the Tea Partiers approved, Naifeh got in the last word.
"Mr. Chairman," he said, "we're in this committee to consider legislation, to work on bills, to make them better, to do what we can. ... We should not be playing to the crowd. A whole lot of that went on today, from the top down."
If the subcommittee arguably played to the crowd, so, too, did the crowd play to the subcommittee, but things were different on Tuesday when the full Commerce Committee met to follow through on the health-care bills, preparatory to routing them to the floor.
Most of the Tea Partiers stayed home this time, pursuing a different strategy, one of e-mailing and telephoning Commerce Committee members in advance regarding their desire to pass the interdicting bills. But they — and the bills — ran afoul of another circumstance. State Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. had meanwhile issued an opinion that all of the bills in question were unconstitutional, on the grounds that, insofar as they urged or mandated actions by the Attorney General's Office, they trespassed on the rights of the judiciary.
Though Cooper's opinion had only advisory status, it provided filibuster fodder for Naifeh and for Representative Mike Stewart (D-Nashville), who carried word that Cooper himself wanted to address the committee on the bills. Faced with an apparent stalemate, the committee adjourned — presumably until its next formal meeting April 12th.
Temporarily, at least, the bills' sponsors and their Tea Party supporters had taken a licking.
Another event of some political consequence occurred last week in Nashville: Four candidates for governor appeared before members of the Tennessee Health Care Association at the Doubletree Hotel for a forum on health care.
The four hopefuls were Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam and Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp, both Republicans, and former state House majority leader Kim McMillan of Clarksville and Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, both Democrats. Absent was Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, a Republican. By mid-week, McMillan had dropped out of the race to become a candidate for mayor of Clarksville.
One of the questions posed to the candidates was whether they would support the ongoing efforts in the Tennessee legislature to repeal or block the just-passed federal health-care legislation.
Haslam, widely considered the most moderate of the three Republicans in the race and a possible gubernatorial frontrunner, said that he "definitely would," that the federal government was taking "a bigger and bigger slice of the pie."
Wamp, who is locked into a struggle with the absent Ramsey for the approval of the state's conservative voters and specifically these days its Tea Partiers, insisted that "the federal government is out of control and running rampant over states' rights and prerogatives."
Wamp is an outspoken advocate of the 10th Amendment and what is called "state sovereignty" — a staple of Tea Party rhetoric. He made headlines recently when, in addressing the health-care issue, he vowed to meet the federal government "at the state line."
In his turn, McWherter seconded McMillan's rejection of the concept of challenging federal law and went further, promising to "abide by" the law. Directly referencing Wamp's "state line" rhetoric, he declared, "That is not how you solve problems," and he accepted the state's obligation under the bill to extend its health-care coverage.
McWherter, now the de facto Democratic nominee for governor, declared that Tennessee needed to "go forward and find a way to fund it and make this bill work for Tennesseans in a way that helps our overall health-care costs."
The die is cast then. The federal health-care act will be an issue in the general election this fall, and so, it would seem, will be the relationship between state and federal power.
Members of the state's various Tea Parties clearly intend to have an effect on the gubernatorial debate, as they had so recently at the state Capitol. And what does Mark Herr have to say on the power question?
As he put it Monday, "the Mid-South Tea Party does not value a local, state, or federal government that is unlimited in its size, scope, or power. We also do not value a government that is financially irresponsible in its constitutional duties to tax and spend the people's money. We also do not value a government that fails in its responsibilities to preserve and protect national and state sovereignty and especially our individual liberties."
What does that mean in terms of direct action? Presumably, we'll all find out.
On the road with Marsha Blackburn
by John Branston
The people who showed up at laryngitis-stricken U.S. representative Marsha Blackburn's three "listening stops" last week had a rare opportunity.
"It's not often you can talk to a member of Congress, and they can't talk back," whispered Blackburn, a Republican from suburban Middle Tennessee, in her meandering two-day tour of the 7th Congressional District, which stretches from Germantown and across the Tennessee River to north of Nashville.
The hot topic, of course, was the health-care bill. Blackburn has been one of its most prominent critics in Congress and on Fox News. And she was, for the most part, true to her word. Her comments and answers were brief and delivered in a soft voice aided by a microphone that was still hard to hear.
"There is not a partisan divide. There is a philosophical divide. There is bipartisan opposition, but there is not bipartisan support," she said at each stop, noting that Governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, called the bill a huge unfunded mandate.
Such bombast as there was came from her audiences in Germantown, 130 miles east in Linden, and in the rural community of Lyles on the outskirts of Nashville. There was plenty of heat and conviction, to be sure, but no rude behavior, racism, or the baroque trappings of the Tea Party movement that are catnip to the media.
At the Great Hall in Germantown, especially, Blackburn was in her element. About 120 people showed up, all of them white, a majority of them appearing eligible for AARP membership.
"It is important to repeal this bill and replace it," said a male speaker from Germantown, drawing applause. To which Blackburn nodded and added that in March, "Social Security started taking out more money than it is taking in, and that was not supposed to happen until 2017."
Ken Preston of Arlington said he is "scared to death of this bill." Walter Roberts of Collierville asked, "What do you think they [Congress] can ram through between now and mid-term?" A retiree from AT&T praised Blackburn for being on Fox News but said his benefits have eroded so much he has no sympathy for Democrats or Republicans. A woman said she will "go to jail or move to another country" if President Obama has his way.
A retired Navy pilot said the government "sicced the IRS on me" and the additional IRS agents called for in the health bill "are going to be used against all of us. Please, for God's sake, get rid of these 16,500 IRS agents they're putting on."
Blackburn suggested Congress "repeal a few more while we're at it" and said "a one-page flat tax would be a pretty good thing."
There was not a single favorable comment about the health-care bill at the Germantown meeting, which was possibly a reflection of the affluence of the crowd. But it was curious that there was no pro-Democrat sentiment the next day in Linden, the seat of Perry County (population 7,700), where 40 people including several children showed up. Unemployment is 19 percent.
"We've lost 1,600 jobs over the last three years," said Mayor Jim Azbill, pleading with Blackburn to fight NAFTA and bring manufacturing jobs back to North America from overseas.
Only six people came to Blackburn's last stop in Lyles. The last questions were about calorie counts and "soda taxes" on fast food and soft drinks, which puzzled me until I saw and heard those things featured in the newspaper and on radio stations in Nashville, which can't hold a Whopper to Memphis when it comes to obesity.
"Using taxes to alter personal behavior is a tried-and-true method of liberals in this country," ranted Supertalk Radio host Tim Shaw as I fought the morning traffic on the way to breakfast at the incomparable Gnoshville restaurant near Vanderbilt.
Rebel that I am, I ordered eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, and a bagel with a side of extra cream cheese.