Commentary: Time for the General Assembly to act on powers equal to governor

August 24, 2020 9:29 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Getty Images)

Tennessee State Capitol (Getty Images)

So, it appears revolutionary fervor is sweeping the Tennessee General Assembly, and there is a move afoot to reign in the tyrannical Gov. Bill Lee.

Last week an ad-hoc committee of the legislature held its first hearing to determine if the governor is abusing his powers with the executive orders he has issued to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 1,300 and counting Tennesseans since March.

The Tennessee Lookout reported this statement by the committee’s co-chair during the opening session:

“Does (the law) in a time of pandemic specifically go too far in allowing the executive branch to take steps that infringe on the individual liberties of our people even during a health crisis?,” asked Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, who serves co-chair of the Ad Hoc Committee to Study Emergency Powers.

“Is it appropriate for a state of emergency to continue for months without the input of the legislative branch?” he said.

The Tennessee Blue Book might help answer the representative’s question, specifically the section on the Tennessee State Constitution.  A good place to start is “Article II, Distribution of Powers. Section 1. The powers of the government shall be divided into three distinct departments: legislative, executive, and judicial.”

In short, the General Assembly is a co-equal branch of government.  It just has to act like one.

There has been nothing standing in the way of the General Assembly conducting oversight of the governor and his administration’s response from the beginning.They could have assured Tennesseans that a truly united response by state government to the health and economic well-being of citizens was taking place.

When I covered the General Assembly, more than 30 years ago, it had just come into its own, owing in no small part to Republican Winfield Dunn becoming governor while the Democrats maintained their significant legislative majorities.  Funny how divided government has a tendency to increase independence among the branches of government.  In fact, the Democratic legislature had chafed under Democratic governors and already begun taking some steps toward independence.

But by the 1980s, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers understood their responsibility to act as a co-equal branch of government, and to act together.

So, back to Representative Zachary’s question.  There has been nothing standing in the way of the General Assembly conducting oversight of the governor and his administration’s response from the beginning.  Standing committees could have called commissioners and staff to testify.  They could have sought out local and national experts on public health to testify.  They could have assured Tennesseans that a truly united — and dare it be said, a bipartisan — response by state government to the health and economic well-being of citizens was taking place.

That would have meant dealing in substance and facts, and not just in the ideological rhetoric to which Tennesseans were treated in the television advertising blitz of the GOP candidates in the U.S. Senate primary this summer.  Of course, a legislative hearing would not have precluded ideological rhetoric and grandstanding.  They could have had their cake and eaten it, too.

The Lee Administration certainly has given them enough topics for oversight:

  • Is there really a coordinated state plan and response? From Mayor John Cooper’s and Drs. Alex Jahangir and James Hildreth’s comments at recent briefings on COVID-19 that appears to be an open question.  They keep pointing out that Nashville is not an island and is affected by, and affects, surrounding counties.
  • What is the Lee Administration’s policy on transparency? It does seem to change from briefing to briefing, and there seems to be a lot of asking Washington for guidance. Not to mention that a basic tenet of effective public health risk communication is transparency.
  • And, then everyone’s favorite: Why is there not a statewide mandate for masks, despite expert after expert saying it is one of the most significant tools now at our disposal, along with social distancing and good hygiene?  The governor’s “one size doesn’t fit all” response doesn’t seem to recognize that the virus does not respect county lines; for a goodly time in July the transmission rate was above 1.0 in every Tennessee county according the University of Tennessee Data Center Covid-19 Dashboard.
  • Finally, is the governor’s re-open and normal approach really the best strategy for fall with flu season coming on?

Even as the Covid-19 numbers in the state trend downward for the moment, it should sobering to all Tennesseans that the state has averaged more than 20 Covid-19 deaths a day since August 1.  Now would be a good time for an independent General Assembly to make certain the state stays on a downward track and protects its citizens.

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Jim O'Hara
Jim O'Hara

Jim O’Hara covered state and national politics and the General Assembly for The Tennessean in the 1980s.