Tennessee goes authoritarian
House Republicans are once again trying to silence Democrats as well as the public, a strategy that imperils democracy
Having failed to permanently expel two firebrand Democrats earlier this year, the Tennessee House is now trying to silence them as well as any voice challenging Republicans. And it’s doing it by brazenly suspending free speech and imperiling democracy.
Democrats are incensed.
“There was an article written called “Is Tennessee a democracy?” said Rep. Justin Pearson, one of the so-called Tennessee Three, speaking on the House floor. “And I believe today we are getting a very clear answer that it is not.”
Republican lawmakers are not only wielding the new rules to stifle debate from Democrats, but they’re also putting draconian restrictions on the public — the people who elected them. It’s all a political calculation that ending free speech will make it easier for Republicans to exert total authority. But it’s making a spectacle of Tennessee.
New rules crafted on Tuesday give House Speaker Cameron Sexton nearly unchecked power to prevent any lawmaker from speaking on the floor, starting with suspensions for three days and quickly escalating to the entire session.
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All Sexton has to decide is whether the member is causing a “material disruption,” a purely subjective determination. Even more alarming, if Sexton decides a member is doing nothing worse than veering off-topic during a debate he can not only cut the microphone - which he does constantly with Democrats - but he can take away their speaking privileges for days. A second offense is a three-day suspension. A fourth bars a lawmaker from speaking on behalf of his constituents on the floor for an entire session.
Had these rules been in place earlier this year, the most vocal Democrats would have been completely silenced.
Sexton’s decisions are not debatable or appealable. They only need a thumbs-up from the Republican supermajority, which in practice is automatic.
Without breaking a sweat, Sexton can strip voters in Nashville and Memphis of having a voice in the House. The speaker can in essence expel a member without expelling them.
It’s a parliamentary maneuver every bit as overreaching as Sexton’s attempt to expel Pearson along with Reps. Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson earlier this year for leading a short protest on the House floor.
That was a huge miscalculation that made Republicans look racist when they voted not to oust the only white lawmaker of the three. They then looked foolish when local officials immediately and unanimously sent Jones and Pearson back to fill their vacant seats. The pair later overwhelmingly won special elections. In their attempt at a chess move, Republicans failed to simply look one move ahead.
The strategy backfired spectacularly. Sexton made Jones and Pearson into national superstars, who embarrassed Republicans every time they spoke.
Not a single Republican in the state house comes close to matching the Justins for their oratorial skills or their popular appeal. The politically astute move for Republicans would have been to lick their wounds and move on. But supermajorities corrupt absolutely.
Instead, they’ve once again elevated Jones and Pearson’s power outside the House floor and made Tennessee look like an enemy to democracy.
Tennessee is now again a top story nationwide as Republicans posted armed security throughout the Capitol to stop protesters from calling for gun reform in the aftermath of a mass shooting in Nashville this year. Members of the public were kicked out of a committee meeting by a chairman upset that a few in the audience briefly applauded.
Jones was already ruled off-topic just yesterday, as was Rep. Jason Powell, whose microphone was cut off as he gave an emotional and angry speech criticizing the new rules. Sexton justified it by claiming preposterously that Powell had veered off-topic. Sexton’s capricious decisions now carry severe penalties.
Rep. Jones summed up the objections:
These rules talk about ruling a member out of order and silencing their voices, but my question is where in the rules can we find a process to hold the Speaker out of order when he misapplies the rules to members? Where in these rules can we rule the Speaker out of order when he shuts off members’ microphones so they have to bring a megaphone to the House? Where in these rules can we hold the Speaker accountable for abusing Constitutional rights and misapplying the rules based on a member’s skin color as opposed to treating every member of this body as an equal member?
Republicans responded by booing. None of them were kicked off the House floor.