Oct. 17–NASHVILLE — The state House Republican Caucus voted Wednesday to hold a special meeting of the state House and Senate with members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation early next year that the leading proponent says should ease “a chronic disconnect between the states and federal government.”
The caucus vote, announced after a secret ballot, was 31-16 in favor of the proposal from House Government Operations Chairman Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, for a “bilateral session” of state and federal legislators.
Under the proposal, a seven-member House committee — with no more than one Democratic member — will “strongly encourage” the state’s nine U.S. House members and two senators to attend the session, to be held sometime between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15 in the state House chamber and open to the public.
The plan calls for a four-member state Senate committee to coordinate with the House panel on arranging the session. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, through a spokesman, said the Senate speaker viewed the proposed session as a “House initiative” and would refrain from comment until hearing more about it.
Matheny’s proposal calls for a list of three to five topics for discussion to be submitted to members of the congressional delegation at least 60 days in advance of the meeting. A document handed out to caucus members at Wednesday’s meeting stresses that only agreed upon issues will be discussed and state House and Senate speakers will “control their individual members” to prevent “political posturing, petty party issues or irrelevant comments or discussion.”
“Not a nullification committee. Not a political witch hunt. Strictly a 90-minute public event to be instituted annually concentrating just on relevant issues facing Tennesseans in the upcoming legislative year,” says Matheny’s handout.
The proposal generated considerable debate. In general, critics questioned whether the bilateral session would have any impact, while proponents declared it a step toward exerting needed influence on congressmen by legislators who are closer to the citizenry.
Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, said U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. is already “listening to legislators in the 2nd (Congressional) District,” and “I guarantee you he has the pulse of his district.” He said there seemed no point in having Duncan attend such a session.
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, told colleagues that the federal impact in his district, and the adjoining district of Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, is “huge” with the presence of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and related facilities. A bilateral session would “show that we at the state level are interested” in federal-level doings, he said.
Several legislators said smaller meetings of regional legislators with their congressmen would be more effective. Matheny said they were free to arrange such a gathering, in public or private, after the bilateral session.
A check last week with staff of U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and East Tennessee members of the U.S. House found the congressmen uniformly non-committal on the bilateral session. Matheny said he has contacted staff of all congressmen and believes they will embrace the idea once it is understood.
House Majority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said in an interview that Democrats have not been consulted and he has misgivings.