Sunday Column: Preparing Legislators to Function in a Disaster

State Rep. Rick Womick has reluctantly revealed that a previously secret plan is in place to allow the Tennessee General Assembly to continue functioning in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
Despite Womick’s understandable hesitancy to make public plans that could be exploited by those plotting disruption of legislative activities, he did so in trying — albeit unsuccessfully — to pass a bill with the goal of preventing such things and preparing for them should they occur. And many of us breathed a sigh of relief in learning that there’s at least a plan to assure that our legislators will be able to continue their vital tasks even if an electromagnetic pulse bomb (EMB) disables their ability to exchange text messages with lobbyists via cellphone.
“This is something I don’t like to put out publicly,” Womick told the House State Government Subcommittee. “There are provisions in place (in the event of an attack) where each one of you will be contacted and taken to an off-site location, in the state of Tennessee, and continue to conduct business. With the governor.”
Womick’s comments came as he pushed for passage of HB1327, which calls on the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security to do background checks and then grant security clearances to 10 select members of the Legislature assigned to a special Security Committee.

This, Womick explained, would allow the Security Committee members to be briefed on intelligence reports about potential threats to state legislators and the state in general. Without this ability for informed legislative planning, lawmakers could be in jeopardy.
(There are nine Republicans, Womick among them, and one Democrat on the current committee. There is unconfirmed speculation that the exception, Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis, was the only Democrat who could pass a GOP security check.)
“Everything’s set for the governor,” Womick advised. “He’s whisked away to a certain location, and he’s secure. The Legislature is not. Every one of us are targets. You may not realize it, but you are.”
Another sigh of relief here, in that our governor, thank goodness, will be able to appoint a task force to make a top-to-bottom review of the situation if something really bad happens.
But, obviously, the governor will need input from the Legislature in dire circumstances. Unchecked, a governor could, for example, approve Medicaid expansion in Tennessee or whimsically block the naming of a bridge in honor of a legislator’s worthy constituent. Far-fetched examples perhaps, but you never know what could happen. And what if the governor is part of the plot to, say, bring Obamacare to Tennessee by nefarious means?
(The difference between Haslam and Islam, it has been noted in some quarters, is only I and Ha. And some think Obama, despite his denials, is a Muslim. No suggestion there. Just saying.)
At any rate, nothing — terrorist attack, natural disaster, whatever — should be allowed to interfere with the functioning of state government. We must maintain normalcy in such situations, or the terrorists win.
Alas, Womick’s bill was postponed when he first brought up the subject, then quickly and quietly axed in a House sub last week. In the interim, it was widely ridiculed by Tennessee’s tiny population of liberal bloggers. Nashville Scene’s Pith in the Wind took the lead — debunking Womick’s passing mention of an EMB attack occurring near Shelbyville a couple of years ago — with Knoxviews, for example, chipping in with a post that included a joke picture of Womick wearing a tin-foil hat.
“Over the last week, much has been said in the media, particularly about me overstating, overreacting, a conspiracy theorist,” Womick said in his second appearance before the panel. “All this bill does is give us as the Legislature the opportunity to prepare for any future terrorist attacks to ensure that this state government of Tennessee continues to function in any such situation. So I’m at the mercy of the committee.”
The committee showed no mercy. The bill was killed.
Yet another sigh of relief. Not necessarily for the demise of the bill, which actually may have some merit — if expanded a bit.
The Legislature cannot function normally without lobbyists. So we need a team of security-cleared lobbyists to provide insight and guidance to legislators at the undisclosed location.
And, sigh, maybe even a few unapproved citizens to watch.

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