TN congressional delegation non-committal on ‘bilateral session’ with legislators

A state House committee chairman is proposing that Tennessee’s U.S. Senators and representatives be summoned to Nashville for a meeting with the state House and Senate — the latest example of state-level lawmakers seeking more influence over federal-level lawmakers.

Asked for comment on the proposal from House Government Operations Committee Chairman Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, for a “bilateral session of Congress,” the members of the Tennessee congressional delegation contacted by the News Sentinel replied uniformly by declaring their appreciation of the General Assembly, now controlled by a Republican supermajority. But none of the congressmen, all Republicans, endorsed the idea or even commented on the merits.

Matheny’s proposal was sent to media last week(posted HERE) on the same day that a Gallup poll was released showing nationwide public approval for Congress is down to 11 percent, just 1 percentage point above the all-time low of 10 percent last year.

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Knoxville, three years ago pushed a bill creating a committee of state legislators to meet with congressmen and give them advice on pending federal legislation. It failed on a tie vote in a House subcommittee in 2010, the last year that Democrats still had equal or majority control of House committee. Today, Republicans have solid majorities in every committee.

Elected to the state Senate later in 2010, Niceley is now pushing a proposal to have the Legislature’s Republican Caucus select the party nominee for the U.S. Senate while the Democratic Caucus picks the Democratic nominee.

The Senate nomination bill cleared committees of both the state House and Senate, then stalled after an outpouring of criticism centered on the notion that it would deny citizens a direct vote on nominees.

But it is officially alive for further consideration next year and Niceley said public sentiment is growing within the Legislature and within the public generally for some sort of Congress-restricting measure — even with Tennessee’s solidly Republican delegation as a starting point.

Both of Tennessee’s U.S. Senators — Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker — are Republicans. So are seven of the state’s nine U.S. House members.

“I think the timing is really pretty good” for the 2014 session of the General Assembly convening in January, said Niceley. “Judd’s got the right idea. He and I are basically on the same page.”

“We balance the budget every year. They don’t… They let the bankers take over up there,” he said. “Everything anybody ever said bad about Washington is true.”

Matheny says a joint meeting of the state’s congressmen with the state house and Senate would provide a dialogue that would “leave both levels of government with a clear understanding of each other’s needs and actions while rebuilding public confidence.

“I am not proposing we convene a halfhearted meeting with mediocre attendance or a private event just for the politically elite,” Matheny wrote. “I believe we need one that is clearly deliberate and mandated by Tennessee’s government leaders and citizens.”

But s couple of Matheny’s Republican legislative colleagues, asking not to be quoted by name, said they saw such a gathering as mostly an opportunity for state legislators to make speeches denouncing Congress with congressmen politely listening and agreeing with them about the inappropriateness of some unpopular Washington doings.

Matheny did not return a call Friday asking for elaboration on his proposal.

Kara Owen, spokeswoman for House Speaker Beth Harwell, noted that the speaker had named Matheny chairman of the Government Operations Commitee — even though, as Owen did not note, Matheny briefly considered challenging Harwell’s re-election as House speaker — then named him to chair the Government Operations Legislative Advisory Committee.

That panel is charged with looking into federal legislation and considering its impact on Tennessee. At its first meeting in August, the panel held a hearing on “federal cost shifting” as it relates to a federal program for resettling refugees in Tennessee. The concern voiced by Matheny and other Republican lawmakers was that resettling 1,500 political refugees is unfairly burdening Tennessee taxpayers, but there was no clear conclusion on what that cost is and an immigration rights group spokesman suggested the whole premise of the meeting carried an anti-Muslim theme.

“The proper role of the federal government is important to all of us, and without a doubt, the Speaker believes that while Washington, D.C. is broken we are on the right path in Tennessee.” said Owen. “She wants to ensure members have the opportunity to share their thoughts with our federal elected officials. The actual mechanism of how that will take place has not yet been determined.”

A sample of comments emailed from spokespersons for members of Congress in response to an inquiry on the merits of Matheny’s proposal follows.

From Brian Reisinger, spokesman for Alexander:

“Senator Alexander visits with state legislators regularly. For example, in January he addressed a joint session of the General Assembly, and in April he and Monty Lankford held a reception honoring our Republican legislators. He looks forward to more visits.”

From Todd Womack, chief of staff for Sen. Bob Corker: “Senator Corker and his staff stay in regular touch with state legislators, appreciate the work they do and have enjoyed many meetings with them over the years throughout Tennessee, in Washington and at the State Capitol. He looks forward to continuing that dialogue.”

From Patrick Newton, spokesman for U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr.: “Congressman Duncan is the dean of the Tennessee House delegation, and he has a great relationship with the Tennessee State Legislature. I am not sure if he has seen this proposal yet, but congressman Duncan sees and speaks with East Tennessee members of the Tennessee State Legislature on a regular basis, and they know his door is always open. And of course his sister, Becky, is a state Senator, whom he speaks with frequently.”

From Tyler Threadgill, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleishmann: “Congressman Fleischmann greatly appreciates the open and strong relationships he has with Tennessee’s elected leaders and has talked to most of the representatives from the third district in the last few days. He looks forward to continuing that dialogue.”