Commentary: Legislature lacks basic human decency

Tennessee House of Representatives Chambers (iStock Editorial/Getty Images)
Nashville, TN, USA November 7, 2010 The chamber of the Tennessee State Senate in Nashville is quiet at the end of the work day.

Let’s cut right to the chase. 

There’s a lack of basic common, human decency in the legislature. 

For the last five or six years, Tennessee political watchers have observed the General Assembly devolve. Members have been expelled for campaign finance malfeasance, accused of sexual harassment or assault and too often laws pursued have focused less on improving life for the average Tennessean than harassing minority groups. 

The legislature has repeatedly failed to take the federal Medicaid expansion money, leaving billions of dollars on the table, money Tennessee taxpayers are supplying that’s going to other states. At the same time, the financial crunch experienced by hospitals has led to more than a dozen closures in rural areas, leaving critical gaps in our healthcare system.

When the legislature met in 2019, we thought we’d seen a benchmark for low: A Speaker of the House who installed listening devices to spy on fellow members and had members of the public removed from committee meetings before he eventually got a vote of no confidence from the GOP caucus and stepped down.  State troopers physically prevented members of the Democratic caucus from leaving House Chambers in protest of a vote. A squirrelly passage of legislation to allow vouchers for private schools that came with allegations of bribes and FBI investigations.

The frustration that exploded from both legislators and the public over the Posey incident wasn’t limited to Lamberth, but rather the culmination of anger from Tennesseans who are sick of attacks on their fellow citizens.

But then 2020 came along. Session started off with jewels such as a bill to declare CNN and The Washington Post ‘fake news.’  The legislature dismissed in March due to the COVID pandemic, returned to session June 1 and apparently, isolation didn’t do anything to teach our officials kindness or humility.

In June alone, action on Capitol Hill has included: 

  • A bill the governor signed that would prohibit adoption by same sex couples. 
  • A white representative accusing a Black one of racism for the latter’s inquiry into whether anyone of color had a say in the proposed state budget.
  • Another white representative calling Black protesters ‘punks.’
  • And, a  memorial resolution for college-bound 17-year-old Ashanti Posey, who was shot to death in May, failed after House Majority Leader William Lamberth addressed the House, introducing a rumor about her and saying she didn’t deserve to be memorialized.

A rumor from one man was enough to keep a routine proclamation from passing, one that might bring a small measure of comfort to a grieving family.

This isn’t about partisanship. It’s not about who’s R and who’s D, who’s far right and who is a screaming liberal. 

This is about disgraceful behavior and personal attacks.

Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-44 (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-44 (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The frustration that exploded from both legislators and the public over the Posey incident wasn’t limited to Lamberth, but rather the culmination of anger from Tennesseans who are sick of attacks on their fellow citizens.

I find myself thinking of the 1954 Congressional Army-McCarthy Hearings on Communism, and U.S. Army counsel Joseph Welch, whose words to U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis. were the most memorable of the hearings.  

To paraphrase Welch’s comments, made after McCarthy persisted in attacking and besmirching a young lawyer with Welch’s firm: 

Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough . . .  Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”