New Normal Role Reversal: The House is the Senate

One curiosity in the new normal of Republican rule in the General Assembly seems to be a role reversal of the House and Senate in institutional attitude.
In the old normal, senators would harrumph at length on a bipartisan basis about being members of “deliberative body” of ladies and gentlemen while viewing the House with some disdain as a bunch of chest-thumping, lock-stepping good ole boys and girls.
Representative, in turn, regard senators disdainfully as something of an elitist debating society, foolishly dithering away hours and days in arcane arguments over the minutia of mundane matters.
In the new normal, the House has become the deliberative body while the Senate is home of the Republican lockstep railroad.
Perhaps the best current example is handing of Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to abolish the current civil service system and replace it with a new, merit-based plan for state employees. As for long-term impact on the operation of state government, it is probably the most significant and complex piece of legislation considered this year.

In the House, Haslam had Rep. Bill Dunn – regarded generally as a right-wing radical in the old normal and as a Republican moderate in the new normal – handle the bill. He struck a gentlemanly, open-to-deliberation posture and declared himself ready to consider revisions.
The House committee hearings were marathon affairs, hours of tedious debate, piles of amendments considered and, ultimately, a fairly bipartisan compromise reached last week. The Senate committee hearings were, in contrast, pretty much slam-bam-ram-it-through and onto the floor.
On the floors of the two bodies, the contrast between time-consuming debate in the House and efficient railroad operation in the Senate is also notable. But there are some quirks there insofar as comparing things to the old normal days of Democrat rule.
The new normal in the House calls for devoting time for acting as a “deliberative body” – or debating society, if you will – on issues of national political import that the state Legislature has no control over whatsoever.
These debating resolutions may be seen as meaningless posturing. At least many Democrats so see them.
But then, they readily join in the debating society as lawmakers collectively spend hours in impassioned discourse on things irrelevant to the function of a state legislature – unless you consider bad-mouthing (or defending) various doings in Washington a primary cause of legislative existence.
And, in the new normal, that is apparently regarded as a major function by the House Republican majority. These debating society moments allow venting and expression of opinion on matters of interest to the conservative talk radio. Last week’s example was a 35-minute floor debate on the merits of a U.S. Department of Health rule requiring medical insurance policies to cover contraception.
Over in the Senate, these resolutions are more or less summarily approved without any wasting of time on debate. The attitude, more or less, seems to be, “OK, it’s got a Republican sponsor. Fine, pass it and be done with it.” In part, this is because Senate Democrats seem to feel such things are not worth arguing about.
In the old normal, there were no such debates on the House floor. In the Senate, there were – though mostly mind-numbing, eye-glazing, back-and-forth discourse on hypothetical situations in state law or policy matters, not national issues.
In the old normal, the late John “the Senate is the Senate” Wilder, a nominal Democrat, presided over the bipartisan debating society in the Senate while Jimmy Naifeh, a dedicated Democrat, presided over the lockstep House.
In the new normal, we have Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell.
The other day, after Naifeh announced he was retiring from Legislatorland, Ramsey told reporters that he had come to admire the style of leadership shown by House speaker emeritus back in the old days.
Ramsey, who began his legislative career in the House under Naifeh, said that represents a change in attitude since he began his own tenure as speaker. Despite partisan and philosophical differences, Ramsey said, he has come to appreciate Naifeh for his honest, straightforward, no-nonsense approach to governing.
This, it is submitted, may interrelate to the institutional role reversal in the new normal. In other words, Ramsey is the Naifeh of the new normal – hard-nosed, partisan and ready to move things along.
Now, Harwell cannot as reasonably be likened to Wilder in many ways. But the Wilderbeast was very bipartisan and Harwell, though more than a nominal Republican, is at least tolerant, even respectful, of Democrats. So, in that limited sense, perhaps she is the Wilder of the new normal.
So things are different, but still the same? Or, as John Wilder might have said in this situation,, “The House is the Senate.”

Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE

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