Doing nothing, and doing even that badly

September 6, 2023 6:00 am
A group of Republican lawmakers on the Aug. 22, 2023, during a special session on public safety called by Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A group of Republican lawmakers on the Aug. 22, 2023, during a special session on public safety called by Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

There’s a problem with doing nothing — how do you know when you’re done?  It is more than a philosophical question, or a rumination on activity versus stillness.  Our state legislature has stumbled through a special session of almost no significant legislating, but failed to stick the landing on when to stop doing nothing.

Perhaps we should lay the blame on Gov. Bill Lee. He put out a list of 18 things that the legislature could do, all carefully avoiding any mention of the word gun.  The closest item, a watered-down red flag law, never had a chance in our legislature.  The only question was why it would fail — was it just a reflexive move from gun-obsessed extremists?

Lee, meanwhile, pulled a disappearing act as if the special session required him to be in a witness protection program. House Minority Leader Karen Camper offered an apt diagnosis of her legislative colleagues. She said, “I think there was too much inaction.”

The Senate Republican supermajority, unhappy overall with being back at work, crafted a nothing but the bare minimum approach. It insisted on just three relatively minor bills and a funding measure. The House, however, drifted into a worse than nothing approach—starting out with the filing of more than a hundred bills, most awful. Speaker Cameron Sexton even gave a figurative upraised finger to the families of Covenant School students who survived a shooting, hawking a bill that would actually allow more guns on school grounds.

Do nothing lawmakers: Gov. Bill Lee called the recent special legislative session a success, indicating he may have been watching a different legislature in action.

Tennessee’s House Republicans needed a phalanx of state troopers as the GOP alternately ignored and silenced the Democrats, hauled away some of those irksome gun safety moms, and passed rules to not let folks hold up even tiny signs on standard sheets of paper. The House scored some agreed-upon wording, but eventually and begrudgingly agreed with the Senate version of minimal nothingness. It’s not really all that surprising the session ended with Sexton bumping shoulders with Memphis Democrat Justin Pearson.

Lee called the special session a success. Either he is a far-too-generous grader or was watching some different legislature somewhere.

Meanwhile, in the U. S. House of Representatives the razor-thin Republican majority also is showing signs of a nothing agenda. The House has passed only one of 12 bills needed to fund the government. We could see a shutdown at the end of this month unless we see a change of direction, or at least a continuing resolution.

The radical right is insisting on massive cuts and rollbacks of popular programs that help working families. The same extremist Republican congressmen championing this brinksmanship were the ones endangering the full faith and credit of the U.S. by threatening a default.

At times like this perhaps we need to take comfort in people who quietly get good things done or at a key moment stand for principle. Let me pick out three developments in East Tennessee. Reason prevailed when Federal Judge Ronnie Greer ruled Sept. 1 that Blount County’s District Attorney and the police cannot interfere with the Blount Pride festival.  The state’s anti-drag bill already had been held unconstitutional by a judge in the western end of the state.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon also just won re-election in municipal elections. I have seen Kincannon defuse controversy and build consensus. One example was when a planned new sculpture in a small park would have led to cutting down six trees, but Kincannon got to work and helped craft a compromise plan that saved five of the six trees.  What could have been a contentious public meeting became a love fest.

The same municipal primary saw a former Knox County Democratic Party chair and former election commissioner, Cameron Brooks, make a runoff against a city council incumbent.  Sadly, just a few days later Brooks, 45, died from advanced sepsis resulting from his first round of treatment for non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Brooks was very popular across party lines, a real estate agent who previously worked in labor organizing.  The outpouring of shock in the community paid tribute to a life cut short but well lived.  Cameron Brooks was a positive force who stood for something, a sharp contrast to so many now who stand for nothing and think we will fall for anything.

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon is a professor of journalism and media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.