Drug Testing of Legislators: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

(Note: This is an unedited version of a column appearing in Sunday’s News Sentinel. Edited version HERE.)
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who is one of the more outspoken and energetic of the remnant liberal members of the state House, has declared plans to file a bill in the coming session of the General Assembly that would require drug testing of state legislators.
“Let’s set an example for them that we’re practicing what we preach,” Hardaway told a Memphis TV station last week. He was talking about constituents who object — as he does — to a pending proposal to require drug testing of recipients of welfare and other government-related benefits.
Legislators, of course, are also drawing government-related benefits.
Sen. Stacey Campfield, one of the most outspoken members of the ruling conservatives in the state Senate, is pushing the bill for drug testing of welfare recipients. Campfield says he’s ready to go along with testing of lawmakers, too. Ditto for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, also an advocate of drug testing for those getting government-related benefits.

“Let’s do it! I’m all for it. My Diet Mountain Dew will show up and that’s about it, I guess,” Ramsey said when asked about his willingness to back drug testing of politicians at a news conference.
We may be onto something here. Namely, a new spirit of bipartisan collaboration toward restoring the public trust in government, which has been sadly sagging in recent years.
Now, there are some possible obstacles here. Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell, known as moderates in comparison to many of their Republican colleagues in Legislatorland, have been hemming and hawing about their support for drug testing of benefit recipients.
Not that they’re against mandating drug tests, mind you. It’s just that, well, you know, we need to think about that. Don’t know that it’s a priority, what with the state budget concerns and all. It might have some conflict with federal laws. And so on.
This, of course, has become the classic maneuver of Haslam, Harwell and other middle-of-the-road types when dealing with more aggressively conservative members of the Republican caucuses.
They do pretty much the same thing on such conservative crusades as creating a school voucher program, slashing state taxes that impact the wealthy and standing up against starting a state health care exchange to comply with “Obamacare.” And so on.
Come to think of it, Democrats have done some of the same hemming and hawing on liberal efforts pushed previously by Hardaway, who is about as creative in coming up with ideas on the left as Campfield is on the right. He has pending, for example, bills that would outlaw gun sales by private individuals at gun shows (HB26) and set up a payroll tax for county governments (HB93). His fellow Democrats, most of them more of the middle-of-the-road inclination, have refrained from jumping aboard.
Campfield and Hardaway have, by the way, jointly sponsored bills that would, generally speaking, promote the rights of fathers in child custody cases — albeit with limited success — despite being polar opposites on many political issues. An example filed this year is legislation (HB21) that would create an “office of noncustodial parent advocacy.”
Now, it is submitted, they have found common ground where, just maybe, even those middle-of-the-roaders could stand. And even as they differ on the triggering proposition of drug testing for welfare recipients.
So what does a legislator do when asked if he or she is willing to take a drug test? Hem and haw? I think not. That would create the suspicion that there’s something to hide at a time when some citizens — at both political extremes — already suspect some legislation results from hallucinations. (This seems a recurring theme in website comments about legislative doings.)
Now, some bold legislator might just declare such an idea silly and dismiss it. But again, wouldn’t that make citizens wonder?
Naturally, some details need to be worked out. The tests, perhaps, should be on a random basis – say with one senator and three House member names being drawn from a hat by a clerk on each day when the House and Senate are meeting. on days when the House and Senate are in session. The testing expense could be deducted from the member’s per diem expense payment – which is a government-related benefit, by the way..
Dispute over details, of course, is the sort of thing that can bog a bill down in subcommittee until it quietly dies. But surely not.
Because legislator drug testing would certify to citizens that our lawmakers are making laws in a state of sobriety. Or maybe catch some who are voting under the influence of something other than lobbyists or campaign contributors?
And the legislator testing bill should be enacted before the welfare testing bill. Then legislators could validly say they were not asking recipients of government benefits to do something they were not already doing.
Then we could all rest assured that we in Tennessee have a drug-free Legislature. A restoration of public confidence would be under way.

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