Sunday column: Times for oratory and times for action in Legislature

Without doubt, the most entertaining debate of this year’s legislative session came in two days of impassioned House floor discourse on whether the Holy Bible should be Tennessee’s official state book – a striking contrast to the utter lack of discussion on most everything else considered.

The Tennessee General Assembly can be a wonderous law-making machine when all the wheels, cogs and gears are greased, as was the case last week with legislative leadership pushing to shut down the 2015 session ASAP.

Monday evening’s House session was a fine example. As always, there were various procedural things to deal with, the opening prayer to be delivered and “personal orders,” wherein legislators pay homage and give praise to constituents and each other.

Using times shown on the legislative website’s video, an hour and 56 minutes elapsed between House Speaker Beth Harwell slamming down the gavel to open that session and slamming down the gavel to end it. It took about 24 minutes to get through the opening personal orders and procedural stuff – including one minute, 29 seconds to approve a “consent calendar” of bills everyone agrees are OK without discussion with no need to vote upon them individually. Then began the actual “regular calendar” of bills awaiting final consideration and which, presumably, are subject to some debate. Nine minutes of more windup procedural stuff came before final gavel.

So about an hour and 23 minutes were devoted to considering enactment of serious laws of the land. In that time frame, the House dealt with 40 bills. The calculator indicates that’s an average of two minutes, 7.5 seconds per bill. And in a couple of cases, more time was spent in good-natured joshing with freshman legislators bringing up their first bill than on the bill itself.

Now, for of this legislation, there had been a lot of discussion before reaching the floor. An example is the measure (SB280) that decriminalizes cannabis oil in Tennessee. It took one minute, 43 seconds of floor time – not counting sponsor Rep. Jeremy Faison spending a minute “out of order” following passage to praise advocates in the balcony for “all the work they have done to see that much green (yes votes) on the board – and we didn’t even have to talk about it.”
A bill banning “powdered alcohol” was approved in one minute, 2 seconds.

Over in the Senate, by the way, cannabis oil sponsor Sen. Becky Massey had to spend more than 10 times as much time in ably defending the bill from critical questioning prior to passage on the same evening. As a vague and general observation, though, yours truly would suggest the Senate usually spends a lot less time debating things than the House.

In other cases, pre-floor discourse was maybe not so great. HB787, which would repeal all local government ordinances requiring sprinklers in multi-residence townhomes, was slightly delayed by Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, rising to question whether it was a “big mistake” to approve something that might endanger lives. A Republican quickly moved previous question – legislative lingo for “shut up and vote” – and the machine was moving again only a bit behind the two-minutes-per-bill schedule.

Most bills given instant approval are seemingly innocuous and/or so complicated and boring they inspire zero general interest – except maybe among lobbyists who know their import to a client.

Yet one can hear lobbyists these days complain they can’t get an appointment to talk with a legislator – at least not without a week’s notice or so, which may be too late with a fast-moving bill – because the lawmakers are too busy rushing to make all their meetings and get everything through committee to the floor for a fast vote.

We can hope that at least someone has a chance to advocate or oppose all that obscure and seemingly arcane stuff. But you have to wonder whether it’s reached the point of anything with a Republican sponsor and not obviously disconcerting is instantly approved while anything with a Democratic sponsor and not obviously inconsequential is instantly killed.

Ah, but bring up God or guns and, Lord, everybody wants to make a speech — so many on the House floor that, eventually, a rarely-used rule was invoked to limit each member’s remarks to two minutes – or about the average total floor time spent on the average bill.

At the end of the allotted two minutes, the speaker’s microphone would go dead, shutting him or her off in mid-sentence.

Enough said. Even in a debate of biblical proportions.

Note: This is the unedited version of a column written for the News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.