The 2010 Symbolic Gesture Session

(Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel)
If the 2009 session of the Tennessee General Assembly was “year of the gun,” as some pundits reasonably suggested about this time last year, then maybe the 2010 edition is the session of the symbolic gesture.
In 2009, there really was action on multiple measures that actually changed laws to liberalize where handguns may be taken by carry permit holders and otherwise arguably impacting Second Amendment rights.
Republicans took control of the state House in the November, 2008 elections – they already had the Senate – and a flood of pro-gun bills, previously thwarted for years in committees appointed by former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh – flowed into the law books. They dealt with allowing guns in bars, guns in cars, guns in parks and so on.
There was, too, the Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act, which basically proclaims that, if you make a gun in our state without involving interstate commerce and keep it here, you can ignore federal firearms laws. Maybe that was a symbolic gesture – no one has tried to invoke its provisions yet, and the federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agency says the act is not to be taken seriously – but at least it set up a lawsuit.
In the 2010 symbolic gesture session, Republicans have once again taken the lead – not that the Democrats aren’t in there trying, too.
Last week, for example, the House spent the better part of an hour in impassioned debate over whether Arizona and its elected officials should be praised for enacting a law dealing with illegal immigrants.
It’s doubtful that anyone in Arizona noticed. Maybe a few weeks from now, a clerk at the Arizona House will get an engrossed copy of the resolution (HJR1253) and remark, “Well, isn’t that nice,” and show it to his/her bosses.
But it was a pretty good symbolic gesture and maybe should be seen as a Republican triumph. Yes, several Democrats joined in support – notably including almost all facing a hotly contested election this fall. They do not want to be found on the wrong side of a symbolic gesture, because there can be political consequences even if there are no physical or fiscal consequences.
Democrats tried a symbolic resolution, too, on the same day. The measure (HR369) praised President Obama for his administration’s efforts toward flood relief in Middle and West Tennessee. Ah, but the crafty Republicans, led by Knoxville’s Rep. Bill Dunn, attached an amendment that praised everyone else involved in flood relief as well and relegated Obama’s administration to the 23rd paragraph, behind Nashville TV stations and the like.
Perhaps the president can live with the disappointment.
Symbolic gestures have come in other forms this year. Here are a couple of examples that should symbolically make our state government function much better:
-Republican-sponsored HB2219, which has already become law of the land, declares in the central paragraph that, “Each department and agency of state government shall strive to achieve economic efficiency through utilization of innovative approaches and methodologies while maintaining the highest level of service for the citizens of Tennessee.”
-Democrat-sponsored HB3007, also already enacted into law, declares that the state finance commissioner must declare that some state employee already on the payroll shall be henceforth known as “the EFFECTS person.” That person, the law says, will “insure that state government is efficient, forward-looking, focused, energetic, competent and transparent.” EFFECT is the acronym for efficient, forward-looking, energetic, competent and transparent – get it.
Maybe the EFFECTS person can sent a memo to every department and agency of state government telling them to strive to achieve economic efficiency. It’s the law, you know.
There were some bills that started out with the premise of actually changing current state law, then were changed into symbolic gestures.
One example – there are several — is legislation that, as introduced, would have required that driver’s license examinations be conducted in English only. But it was watered down by amendment to simply restate present practice; that is allowing examinations in various languages so long the folks taking them are here legally. Thus, it accomplished really nothing, but it was an important symbolic gesture – allowing every legislator who voted for the bill to declare he/she supported English-only legislation.
Then there is the Tennessee Health Care Freedom Act and its various kindred, designed to declare defiance of a federal health care reform. The centerpiece bill directs the attorney general to file a lawsuit that he has, more or less, officially declared cannot and will not file.
Therefore, the bill is basically a symbolic gesture. But a darned important one, of course. Without action on this matter, how will anyone know – or believe – that Tennessee legislators stand for limited government.
So limited, in fact, that they enact laws that do nothing.
(Afterthought: You know, the budget battle involves some symbolic gesturing, too.)

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