Capitol View Commentary: March 26, 2010
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
March 26, 2010
DEADLINE BRINGS ACTION; HISTORY IS MADE; TENNESSEE'S ROLE; THE LATEST POLL; A HARBINGER OF BAD TIMES AHEAD; INSIDE POLITICS
DEADLINE BRINGS ACTION
After weeks on Capitol Hill in Nashville with little or nothing going on politically, suddenly, and just before the April 1 qualifying deadline for the August elections, all heck breaks loose!
It begins with GOP House Majority Leader Jason Mumpower shocking everyone with an announcement that he will not seek re-election. That leaves his leadership position open as well as questions about who will be the Republican nominee for Speaker of the House when the next General Assembly convenes in January, 2011? (Glenn Casada, somebody else?)
The announcement by Mumpower comes about 18 months after his stunning defeat in the last Speaker's race to former GOP colleague Kent Williams, who joined with the Democrats to snatch the Speaker's chair away. So why is he leaving? Representative Mumpower says it has nothing to do with the loss to Speaker Williams. He says he is "not giving up the fight, but looking to new challenges." So what does that mean? A high position in a new Republican gubernatorial administration (he is supporting Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey)? Did he just get tired (or his family did) of traveling back and forth to Nashville throughout the year from Upper East Tennessee? Or did Representative Mumpower realize he no longer had the votes to be his party's nominee for Speaker or maybe even for Leader?
The rumor mill had actually gotten started on this late last year. Mumpower backed the wrong candidate in the GOP primary for the special House election in southern Middle Tennessee. Then he raised eyebrows by not attending the swearing-in ceremony for the new member. There were reports then he might be losing interest in his job. But those rumors had all but died out, until Mumpower dropped the bomb by going to the House well during routine announcement and delivering his surprise retirement announcement.
The approach of the qualifying deadline seemed to bring out another "retirement" announcement, this time in the GOP governor's race. Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons never seemed to find much support or money outside his base in West Tennessee. So he has announced he is quitting the field. It's hard to say this will make much difference in the overall race, but given Gibbon's somewhat moderate stance on many of the issues, it might seem his voters would migrate toward Bill Haslam rather than Ron Ramsey or Zach Wamp. However Wamp was quickly out with a media statement praising Gibbons and calling him a friend.
The Gibbons' withdrawal clearly shows the huge importance of raising money in politics, especially for a statewide campaign. It is also why we should look very closely next month when the latest round of financial disclosures are made, particularly to see how Lt. Governor Ramsey is hanging on during a period when he cannot raise funds because the General Assembly is in session. It will also give us additional clues about whether Democratic candidate Kim McMillan has found a way to raise more funds to compete with Mike McWherter.
One final fund raising note: Tennessee Senator Bob Corker has found out his new national profile in trying to negotiate reform of our financial system can sometimes come back to bite.
According to a story in POLITICO, a Corker fund raiser circulated an e-mail that seem to get uncomfortably close to selling access to Corker during the upcoming Easter break. The Senator will be in New York and Chicago during that time and the fund raising e-mail said: "We have a few openings in the schedule…we are hoping for $10,000 for meal events and $5,000 for small meetings" (with the Senator).
Media reports about the situation brought immediate action from Corker who cancelled any fundraising activities that were being planned saying it would be "inappropriate." Political money: it's hard to live with it sometimes, but you sure can't live without it either.
HISTORY IS MADE
And so we have national health care reform.
The process was certainly messy, even sometimes downright ugly. And while almost nobody feels particularly "reconciled" by what Congress approved in two different pieces of legislation, the decades- old quest for making health care a right for all Americans appears done. The Republicans and some Democrats resisted until the bitter end, but efforts to amend to death the final bill proved futile.
From a purely political point of view, let me offer my congratulations to President Barack Obama and his team for resurrecting this legislation from the ash heap of history and finding a way to get it approved at a time when most political observers (including me) thought there was no way it could be done. This was particularly true after the Republicans and other opponents won the PR war and turned public opinion against health care overhaul and then the Democrats lost Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.
But now comes an equally difficult task, implementing the new law, while Republicans and other opponents seek to challenge its legality in the courts and in the state legislatures across the nation. The GOP also says it hopes to take back Congress and repeal Obama Care next year. But I doubt they can do that because I don't think their gains on Capitol Hill will be large enough this fall to override a certain presidential veto. But even without all these political and legal challenges, it still will 3 to 4 years at a minimum before the new health care legislation is completely implemented and that too presents challenges.
Americans are like two-year olds. We have very short attention spans and want immediate and continual gratification. So when many of those not presently covered by health care still can't get it in a few months or even a year or two (and, God forbid, the schedule for implementation is delayed for some reason) even those dancing in the street about this bill finally passing will be unhappy again.
Perhaps the new insurance restrictions prohibiting dropping coverage due to illness or pre-existing conditions, which go into effect in six months, will work out successfully. But if those changes are accompanied by new large premium hikes, you can get ready for the wailing and gnashing of teeth to begin. The same is true for many state governments already pushed to the wall financially by the recession, now having to find the money to pay their parts for all the new Medicaid (TennCare) enrollees who will be added into coverage.
The biggest concern for those Democrats (such as Tennessee's Jim Cooper and Bart Gordon) who voted for it in Congress, is convincing voters this November that the health care legislation is good thing when so little of it will be in effect, impacting their daily lives. That's also why President Obama is already out on the campaign trail touting the benefits of the new law. But despite these efforts, with an economy still stuck in neutral at best, with unemployment still at or above 10% in many states, it sure makes it hard to see the fall elections as anything other than one where incumbents in general will be at increased risk.
I suspect this new health care law, while 100 years in the making according to President Obama, will not turn out to be the panacea the Democrats are promising, nor the end-of-times Armageddon the Republicans are predicting. It could well be true that some years from now, people will come to view the new health care system as fondly as many do Medicare or Social Security today (and they were equally controversial when they were first approved). In fact, public opinion polls (USA TODAY/GALLUP) have already begun to turn around (at least temporarily) with support for the new health care bill at 49% and opposition at 40%.
So we've now officially and completely made health care a right, not a privilege. That has huge cost implications, especially for a nation struggling in a vast sea of red ink that only seems to be getting deeper and deeper. It raises the question: When are we as a nation going to get serious about dealing with our national debt which more than anything else is driven by our entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), especially now that we have just added a big new addition to its ranks?
We've discussed several times the key role Tennesseans have played in the health care debate. While the 219-212 margin was wide enough that the yes votes of Congressmen Bart Gordon and Jim Cooper were not completely decisive, without them, congressional leaders may have had to lean even more heavily on Congressman John Tanner who reportedly (NEW YORK TIMES) got a pass from the Democratic House leadership concerned that a yes vote would cripple the chances of State Senator Roy Herron to hold the seat for the Democrats this fall.
Meantime, Congressman Cooper, as we told you in the last column, seemed to lean heavily on the local support for the new health care bill coming from all the local hospitals (including Vanderbilt) as well as support from some elements of the Catholic community (despite the problems of how to deal with federal funding of abortions which kept Catholic bishops in opposition). Cooper said he deliberately kept himself in the "undecided" camp to give him some leverage with the House leadership. He thinks in part that is why the decision was made (wisely) to not pursue a legislative tactic to just "deem" the Senate bill approved without an up or down vote. It turns out the Senate bill was all Cooper voted for. He did not approve the second "reconciliation" bill which, while generated by Democratic House members wanting further concessions, was not his cup of coffee.
You can be sure Cooper's votes will earn him both praise and opposition in this year's election. But it seems to me for the most part, those in the left-wing of his party have come to amicable terms with the Congressman and I am not seeing any major opposition coming forth at least in the primary. I suspect the Republicans will feel emboldened to take Jim Cooper on, but this district remains so Democratic I can't see an upset in the making here.
As far as Democratic chances of holding Bart Gordon's seat this fall, it didn't much matter how he voted. His seat is clearly going Republican. So his yes vote was strictly up to him. However, it was one of the lowest moments of the health care debate in Congress when Gordon was accused by some of his Republican colleagues of selling his "yes" vote on health care for a job with NASA after he leaves office. The Congressman strongly denied the accusation and his accusers offered absolutely no evidence. This is a very serious charge being made. Those who made either ought to back up their accusations (and take them to the Justice Department for further investigation) or shut their mouths. Of course, when you see and hear the news reports of what else was said on the floor ("baby killer')and the racial and sexual slurs hurled at some Congressmen as they entered the Capitol during the debate, you can see that political discourse and debate in this country is at all time lows. And then there are the threats and vandalism occurring against some House members who voted yes. There just is no excuse for this kind of gutter politics and hooliganism to occur.
Of course, in situations like these, there are always occasions to ask "what were they thinking?" Take Vice President Joe Biden, who once again proved his "gift for gaffes" when he dropped the f-bomb during what he thought was a quick, private conversation with the President but done near an open microphone into which the Vice-President had just been speaking.
The political controversy over health care is now moving to the state legislatures across the country. Already several states have passed resolutions urging their attorney generals to file suit against the federal government to keep the new health care law from being enforced within their borders. Tennessee's Senate has already passed such a measure, saying it is unconstitutional for the federal government to mandate people have to buy health insurance. Some also question the unfunded mandate of the states now having to pay more money for Medicaid (TennCare) coverage. It is expected that the state House will also approve asking the AG to file a lawsuit. But whether Bob Cooper will do so, remains kind of an open question.
General Cooper says he and his staff are "beginning a thorough and detailed analysis of the health care reform legislation." He points out that several of the issues that opponents of the new law seemed most upset about, such the mandated coverage and expanded Medicaid coverage won't happen for several years yet. He then warns that he will seek a lawsuit "only upon determination that litigation is proper, prudent and timely. In the meantime as Tennesseans have long respected, this office will be conscientious to avoid engagement in on-going political debates."
But an ongoing political debate is exactly what three of Tennessee's GOP gubernatorial candidates are doing on this issue. Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey is leading the charge to pass the legislation to get the AG lawsuit filed. He is trying to match in fervor and frequency the efforts of his opponent, Congressman Zach Wamp, who tried unsuccessfully to stop the new healthcare law in Washington. Both men have been issuing lots of statements and news releases on the topic as well as e-mail fundraising appeals on the matter (why not, the next fund raising disclosure deadline is the end of March).
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is also a gubernatorial candidate. He has clearly been the quietest candidate on this issue….until now. The reputed GOP front runner has sent out a fundraising e-mail saying Washington has approved "an intolerable expansion of power (with) an unwanted and unconstitutional takeover of America's health care system." Haslam calls the move "arrogant (and) unacceptable" and he says (as the other remaining GOP candidates have) "…if elected governor, I will pursue every means necessary to protect our state's rights and fight the federal takeover of Tennessee's healthcare."
Maybe Mayor Haslam has been saying things like this all along on this issue, but I sure haven't heard him this strong on the matter. Does this represent a change in tactics? Is he trying to catch up to the parade of where his party and his opponents have been headed for some time on this matter? Has this issue become a litmus test for GOP candidates? Is that why he thinks he needs to say these things, particularly in a fundraising appeal as we approach the next fundraising deadline? It's interesting to say the least….
It's apparently a little too much for some Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly. Nashville representative Mike Turner, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus told reporters this week he thinks all the criticism of President Obama and his health care plan is motivated by racism.
"I think some of the people who are against Obama are just against Obama because he's African-American," he told THE CITY PAPER (3/22), adding, "all of sudden we have a black man elected president and everybody wants to start acting like something's wrong with our country. I didn't agree with a lot of things George Bush did, but I wasn't ready to secede from the union."
Specifically as to the legislation to mandate a health care lawsuit by the Attorney General, Turner was again blunt: "I have one thing to say about that: Appomattox. We've got a lot of bills on states' rights here, state sovereignty and all that. We went through that fight before."
I think Turner may have something of a point on that part of the issue. The sovereignty of the federal government over the states has been pretty well upheld by the courts over the years. Of course anytime a matter is litigated there is no way to safely predict the outcome. I would say that is particularly true with our current federal Supreme Court, which could have the final say in this matter.
But I think Representative Turner went a bit too far in seeming to accuse some of his colleagues of racism. In watching his comments on camera, I seemed to me Rep. Turner paused for just a second before getting into the "people are against Obama because he is African-American." He should have stopped his comments and not gone there.
THE LATEST POLL
Here is a little bit more on the governor's race and the state of politics in Tennessee. As Bill Gibbons exits the field, the Rasmussen polling firm has issued a new survey. While Gibbons was not included in the survey, it shows all three of the remaining GOP candidates ahead by double-digits either of the Democrats in the field. Interestingly, I first heard of the survey from the Ramsey campaign, even though Haslam runs slightly better than either Ramsey or Wamp in the mock head to head races. Here are the breakouts for you political junkies:
While no Democrats can feel good about these numbers, Rasmussen does point out that the undecided or "don't know who these folks are" voters in all these races remain above 20%, so perhaps there is a window of hope, since none of the Republicans are above 50% in support.
But if you look further into the Rasmussen poll on key issues, there is more bad news for Tennessee Democrats. Only 31% favor the new health care law while 65% oppose it. 62% oppose mandating health insurance and 57% think the Tennessee Attorney General ought to file suit over the matter. Only Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen get high marks with a 70% approval rating. Of course, he's term-limited and can't run to hold the seat for the Democrats. In summary, it is a poll with a lot of red meat and another strong sign what strong Republican state Tennessee is these days.
A HARBINGER OF THINGS TO COME
We gotten strong reminders in recent days of what difficult budget situations both Metro Nashville and the State of Tennessee are facing.
First, Governor Bredesen announced that the state is mailing out 853 layoff notices to employees. Another 300 will go out in the next several months. These are positions the state says it needs to get rid of for "business reasons" and are in areas that officials had talked about cutbacks before (children's services and mental health).
Meantime, an area of local government used to being ‘fully funded", K-12 education is instead this year looking at a serious budget shortfall ($25 million) and that's even after the Metro School Board painfully cut $11 million out of its spending plans by reducing the hours of school bus drivers, outsourcing 600 custodial jobs and eliminating 24 jobs at the central office.
The controversial move has brought strong outcries of opposition from employee union representatives and some members of the Metro Council, which will ultimately approve amount of money the school system receives for next year. But unless the Council is willing to cough up the money to cover the cutbacks, as well as the remaining $25 million shortfall in classroom-related services, there could be even more education service cuts and layoffs coming. Some council leaders suggested an across the board pay cut for all education employees, but that's not allowed for teacher by state law, so that won't work and besides it does nothing to address the larger $25 million shortfall school says it has to keep a status quo budget.
Mayor Karl Dean gets to grapple with this problem first before he submits his full Metro budget to the Council by May 1. So far, about all the Mayor has said publicly is that he is pleased Schools Director Dr. Jesse Register is trying to shield classroom instruction from cutbacks. But since the school system no longer has the sizable reserve funds to fall back on to fund its shortfalls as it has done in recent years, is the Mayor, who has made schools one of, if not his top priority, ready to use the city's general fund reserves to make up the difference? Or even raise taxes (doubtful, I say).
We may start to get some clues about the Mayor's budget game plan for schools and the rest of Metro (which is also hurting financially) beginning Monday, March 29. That's when the Mayor holds budget hearings for all departments. Stay tuned. It's going to be a tough spring for both Metro and the State.
This week on INSIDE POLITICS we will reflect on many of the matters we've talked about in the column this week. Joining us will be the dean of the Capitol Hill Press Corps, Tom Humphreys of THE KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL along with another long time Capitol Hill reporter Joe White of Nashville Public Radio.
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Join us! And if live you live outside the Nashville TV area, remember you can find excerpts from previous INSIDE POLITICS shows, here on the Newschannel5.com web site.