Sunday column: Speeding legislators, secret pre-meetings and public opinion

As appropriately noted by some Tennessee Republican legislators last week, secret meetings are by no means a new development in Legislatorland.

Why, the state constitution enshrines the principle of secrecy for lawmaking, which, as widely understood, is rather like making sausage and thus something people don’t need to know about.

Article II, Section 22, proclaims: “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.”

Note this effectively applies only to floor sessions and “committees of the whole” — that’s when all members of the House or Senate meet together as a committee, a provision that is never used these days despite the interesting possibilities for doing so in supermajority situations. Committees of less than the whole, and that’s all functioning committees today, are not included.

Further, the constitutional provision effectively lets legislators decide what “ought to be kept secret.” And when legislators enacted the sunshine law requiring city councils, county commissions and the like to meet in public, they exempted themselves from doing the same. It would have been unconstitutional to do otherwise, of course.

So legislators basically have unfettered and unlimited discretion to meet secretly whenever they want — if public opinion and dissension within legislative ranks does not interfere. It does, occasionally.

During recent decades of Democratic dominance of the General Assembly, secret meetings were a standard, as observed by House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada and others after last week’s statewide reporting of secret meetings that were being conducted by 10 of 15 House committees of less than the whole.

The famous “black hole committee,” a subcommittee of the House Finance Committee, was most notorious for its “pre-meetings” in secret to work out a script for rapid-fire killing or approval of bills in advance of the official meeting held in public. The Republican supermajority has carried on that tradition in today’s budget subcommittee.

The controlling Democrats of bygone days had other examples of secrecy. Those, too, have mostly been embraced by the new Republican supermajority. But last week’s revelations show that GOP rule has led to a dramatic expansion of legislative discretion to hold secret meetings.

There has been backpedaling on the secret pre-meetings since they were revealed — that dang possibility of public opinion having an influence has reared its ugly head — so that the previously-secret meetings are now acknowledged and media are now allowed to attend.

That’s also not without precedent. Democratic rulers occasionally opened previously-secret proceedings in response to publicity. When they did so, by the way, media types typically became bored with the tedious doings and then ignored them. Enlightened Republicans might wisely follow that example, too, in these days of shrinking media coverage of state government generally.

Senate Republicans have done so, pretty much. Senate rules adopted under GOP control, perhaps in a bow to public opinion with its roots in a special session on ethics, basically declare that senators are voluntarily putting themselves under the Sunshine law. The House has no such rules, choosing to leave secrecy to the whim of committee chairs.

Maybe that’s what House Speaker Beth Harwell had in mind when she “respectfully requested” openness in a memo to committee chairs after last week’s attention to the closed-door gatherings.

A relevant secondary question: Why now?

The suspected answer is that Republican leadership is striving to end the current legislative session as rapidly as possible. This will display GOP efficiency, you see, as opposed to the Democratic dithering days when sessions typically lasted into May and sometimes June or even July.

If you watch current legislative proceedings, the standard is pretty much a slam-bam on anything that hasn’t attracted public attention — and that’s 90 percent or so of what the Legislature does. Bills can pass through a panel, literally, in 32 seconds of open-to-the-public consideration (Yours truly timed one the other day).

Allotted time for public committee meetings is limited; the committees butt up against one another in timing and there’s only one room designated for Senate committee meetings and four for House panels. Time and opportunity for public discussion, you see, is very restricted.

So maybe it’s a good thing that legislators are having secret pre-meeting sessions. Better secret consideration than no consideration at all, right? And we can surely trust the legislators to decide what “ought to be kept secret.”

Note: This is a slightly expanded version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel that is available HERE.