Tennessee legislators this year are calling for a broad array of limitations on federal government authority within the state, a movement that the speakers of the House and Senate say reflects growing concern within the Republican supermajority.
“The number of bills (filed) indicates that this is a Legislature that firmly believes in states’ rights,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell. “The federal government is not running properly and state government is. … That is the driving force.”
But she and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who ran for governor in 2010 under the theme “Give Washington the boot,” say they are still studying the pile of bills asserting states’ rights in one way or another and are not ready to declare support — or opposition — to specific proposals.
Ramsey said he has misgivings about some measures declaring that federal laws violating the Constitution are void in Tennessee. The threshold question, he said, is who decides what is unconstitutional.
“The last thing you want is some rogue sheriff out here deciding what’s unconstitutional,” he said.
Some proposals call for the Legislature to decide, notably including the Tennessee Balance of Powers Act (SB1158) proposed by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, and Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma. It would create a joint House-Senate committee to review federal laws and executive orders and recommend to the full House and Senate those that exceed the federal government’s constitutional authority. If the full House and Senate agree, the bill declares that those laws will be null and void within the state.
While saying he had not read the bill, Ramsey said that — as a “first reaction” — such proposals would seem to have the Legislature entering the turf of the judicial branch of government.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner says Harwell, Ramsey and other GOP leaders should be moving promptly to head off what he calls “crazy bills” from the Republican right wing lest Tennessee become a target of national ridicule and/or spend large sums of money on litigation in court.
“I hope that cooler heads on their side will prevail,” Turner said. “But they need to show some courage to put these extremists in line. … There are extremists in both political parties. A lot of their extremists got elected to the Legislature. Our extremists didn’t get elected to the Legislature.”
The largest group of states’ rights bills deal with gun control. Perhaps the broadest is a proposal by Beavers and Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, that expands upon the Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act enacted during the last legislative session.
The law now on the books declares that any gun manufactured in Tennessee and kept within state borders is exempt from federal gun laws. The law had some exceptions — guns with a bore diameter of more than an inch, for example, or those firing explosive bullets — that are repealed in the new proposal (SB250).
The new bill also declares that, regardless of where a gun was made, “any federal action shall be deemed an intentional violation of state sovereignty and shall be unenforceable within the borders of Tennessee” if it attempts to “infringe on, ban, regulate, or restrict state government, local government or civilian ownership, transfer, possession or manufacture of a firearm, a firearm accessory or ammunition in this state.”
Other gun-related proposals are less sweeping. For example, HB690 by Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, and Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, would invalidate only new presidential executive orders that restrict the right to bear arms, and HB10 by Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, and Niceley would only prohibit any state, city or county funds or personnel from being involved in enforcement of federal gun restrictions enacted after Jan. 1, 2013.
Beyond guns, bills on other aspects of federal-state relations include:
n HB1059 by Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Goodlettsville, and Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, which would prohibit any state or local government employees, including members of the National Guard on duty in the state, from assisting in operations involving “section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act,” which critics say allows unconstitutional detention of American citizens.
n The Health Care Compact Act (SB407) by Beavers and Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, which provides a framework for the state taking over Medicare and other health care programs from the federal government. Similar legislation passed the Senate last session, but failed in the House.
John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor who oversees the university’s polling of Tennesseans, says an emphasis on states’ rights may be expected with the present strong Republican majority.
“They have more faith in the state doing things than the federal government doing things,” Geer said, noting a recent Vanderbilt poll that found 73 percent of Republicans — as opposed to 31 percent of Democrats — would prefer the state operation of a health care exchange over federal operation.
The Vanderbilt poll also found that only 7 percent of Tennesseans favor secession from the Union, and Geer said that, even among those who do, “for most of them it’s just their way of expressing their unhappiness with Obama’s election rather than anything else.”
Geer also said he suspects that some of the legislation filed this year may be a “symbolic gesture.”
Niceley, an ardent advocate of states’ rights, acknowledged that there may be little chance for passage of many bills proposed this year.
“Basically, what we’re doing is sending messages to the federal government to slow down and back off,” Niceley said. “Maybe if we send enough messages, then they will back off.”