Closed-door meetings and private discourse are institutionalized in Legislatorland, perhaps fundamentally because of a provision in Article II, Section 22 of our state constitution that says:
“The doors of each House and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret.”
The constitutional call for open government, thus, is basically meaningless. Note, first of all, that this doesn’t cover anything except the full-attendance meetings of each house, the House and the Senate. Meetings as a “committees of the whole,” a procedure rarely used in modern times, means that all members of the House and Senate are present, but that they are functioning as a committee for procedural reasons.
Committee meetings and subcommittee meetings are omitted; not to mention all other legislator gatherings, such as meetings of the Democratic and Republican caucuses.
Further, the constitutional provision basically leaves closing of the open doors — even for meetings of the full House and Senate — at the complete discretion of legislative leaders. They can decide that the matter for discussion “ought to be kept secret,” using whatever criteria they wish, and constitutionally close the doors to the public and media.
The state’s open meetings statute, also known as the “sunshine law,” does not apply to the Legislature. The constitutional darkness applies instead.
So, while City Council and County Commission members complain that they can’t meet in groups of two or more to deliberate toward a decision, legislators can and do meet in groups of dozens — with lobbyists or political operatives if they choose — to deliberate at length.
Now, as a matter of practice, legislators don’t close the House and Senate doors for official secret sessions — or not lately anyhow. And, yes, House and Senate rules do have some openness provisions covering even committees.
But in reality, most deliberations on legislation occur behind closed doors. And, if anything, the secrecy has become more pervasive in recent years. Once upon a time, for example, the partisan caucus meetings were almost always open to reporters and only rarely were media types given the boot. Today, rare is the caucus meeting that is open. They are closed — on a bipartisan basis — as a matter of course.
And it’s so institutionalized that the matter gets very little discussion. Even some open government advocates are more or less resigned to the status quo.
Last week’s dawn of the 2012 session showed things are not changing. The House, Senate and congressional redistricting bills, drafted in secrecy over the past six months or so, were the subject of hours of closed-door huddles; likely more than in the hours of public sparring in committees.
The House floor session Thursday morning, for example, was postponed until the afternoon to allow private confabs in the partisan caucuses and otherwise for a few more hours to make last-minute changes..
The Tennessee League of Women Voters president, Margie Parsley, has declared that “the secret discussions which lead to this ‘take-it-or-leave-it plan’ do not serve the public interest.”
So it seems a bit disingenuous to have Republican leaders, notably including House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, hailing the 2012 redistricting process as the “most open and transparent” in Tennessee history.
Sad thing is, they may be right. The Republicans at least put the rules for redistricting on a website last summer and invited people to send in suggestions, presumably to be discussed in those closed-door meetings and then ignored.
Then again, the Democratic plan of 2002 was trotted out into public somewhat earlier — Dec. 23, by one lawmaker’s recollection — and then was revised into a compromise version after a round of closed-door meetings that resulted in public approval by both parties.
So, maybe that was more open in that it became public earlier. This year’s congressional plan was not made public until four days before it was approved in committees of both the House and Senate (the final meetings were open).
At any rate, declaring that this year’s redistricting was the most open and transparent in Tennessee history could be akin to, say, Barack Obama boasting he is a better president than Millard Fillmore.
You could even say the legislators are damning themselves with faint praise.
This is a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel, also appearing HERE.