By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations
February 13, 2009
RECESS & THE POWER OF 3; YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP; INSIDE POLITICS & THE STATE PARTIES; MORE WATER
By the time you read, this President Barack Obama may have claimed the first major Congressional victory of his new administration: the passage and signing of a massive economic rescue/stimulus plan that will spend and cut taxes to the tune of nearly $900 billion dollars.
Is it enough? Is too much? Is it targeted? Will it work? Only time will tell, and that means it could 2010 at the earliest before we know anything for sure. But clearly it passed when it did, I think, for two reasons: the calendar and the power of 3.
I say the calendar because historically there is nothing like a looming congressional recess to focus minds and priorities, and to get our national leaders to cut to the chase on important pending legislation. With the President's Day recess upon them, Congress ended weeks of seemingly never- ending wrangling to come up with a compromise bill that will try and get America and its economy back on its feet again. Why now? Well, our congressmen and senators are eager to get home and away from Washington. But they didn't want to come home without something accomplished (one way or another) on the stimulus/rescue package.
Now, to be sure, what passed is not popular with everybody. Despite all the efforts of President Obama to achieve a bi-partisan majority for the bill, only three Republican Senators voted for it the first time and their votes were critical to shutting down a filibuster so the measure could pass and get in to a conference committee. Their support also clearly had an impact on limiting how much horse-trading could be done by the House-Senate conference committee that worked out the final compromise legislation. And that's why the final package actually turned out to be smaller in terms of dollars spent than either the original House and Senate bills.
It's clearly not different enough to get the votes of most Republicans, including our two Senators Alexander and Corker. As for Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper, who was one of only 11 House Democrats who voted no against the original House bill, he came back into the fold and voted in favor of the final bill. Saying that supporting the compromise plan was one of "most painful votes he's ever cast" the Congress added the new plan "is better and more targeted...and it is much closer to the President's original request." Cooper says Congress has a lot to learn from the President "about transparency, accountability and bi-partisanship" and he is casting his vote (for the rescue/stimulus plan) "to keep that dialog open. "We have even bigger challenges ahead," says Cooper, "and we have to build trust and legislative capacity as soon as possible." OK, but good luck on that. You'll need it.
The question for the Republicans now is how much of a calculated gamble is the party taking? If the rescue/stimulus package appears to work, by this time next year, Democrats will have a terrific issue to use in the 2010 election: how the Democrats helped save the economy, while the Republicans did nothing. Of course, things could go the other way if the stimulus/rescue fails. So there's a lot to watch for in the weeks and months ahead as Washington, along with state and local governments figure out how to spend all this money and implement these tax breaks as quickly and effectively as possible. Is that an oxymoron: Government doing anything quickly and effectively?
One other item on this rescue/stimulus bill, a loyal reader of this column recently gave me a Bloomberg commentary (2/9) by Betsy McCaughey, a former Lt. Governor of New York and an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. She claims there is significant language in the bill (at least she says it was there before the final conference committee) that sets up a lot of the health care reform sought by the Obama administration, including tough new government rules on electronic paperwork and cost-effectiveness standards. I know there have been a lot of complaints about too much pork and spending in the bill, but a health care reform package tucked way inside the bill too, and with no congressional hearings on that topic?
I know a lot of members of Congress complained about how little time they got to review the final bill before passage (not that that is a terribly unusual thing to happen on Capitol Hill). Still given his health care expertise is thing something Congressman Cooper looked into before casting his "painful vote?"
YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP
I don't know what the lasting legacy of the 106th Tennessee General Assembly will be. Lawmakers just began meeting a few weeks ago. But from a political point of view, it has already been a really strange legislature.
Just when it appeared that tempers were cooling over the surprise election of then-Republican lawmaker Kent Williams by Democrats to become House Speaker, State GOP leaders (not surprisingly) kicked him out of the party and the charges and recriminations began all over again. Republican Party Chair Robin Smith accused Williams of breaking his word by not voting for the Republican nominees for leadership and seeking to enrich himself politically by going over to the other side. Williams responded by avoiding those accusations, and instead accusing Smith of making this a personal matter, calling him "a devil" and a political "dead man" for what he did. (A charge Smith denies).
That left the House with a Speaker without a party and the Republicans without a clear majority, as William's ouster put it 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats in the lower chamber. And then it got even more bizarre just a few days later when the House was left temporarily without a Speaker as Williams' mother fell ill and he left Nashville to be at her bedside.
Normally, the Speaker Pro Tem would take over leadership duties. But Lois Deberry of Memphis is herself recovering from an illness and is unavailable. Fortunately, in an encouraging sign of bi-partisanship rarely seen so far this session, Democratic and Republican House leaders convinced their members to unanimously select a "temporary speaker" (Republican Steve McDaniel) to run the House. Now nobody knows exactly what that means in terms of the powers of a "temporary speaker" or how long Speaker Williams and Speaker Pro-Tem Deberry will be gone, so who knows what could happen next? (Perhaps it the emerging boondoggle by some lawmakers to force President Obama to show his U.S. birth certificate. And that has what to do with being a state legislator in Tennessee? Whatever)
Up on the Hill., there was also drama around the Governor's State of the State address delivered Monday, February 9. Given the fact that no one knows what the state budget will look like while we await the final passage of the rescue/stimulus bill in Washington, I thought Governor Bredesen did an excellent job in outlining how he plans to handle the billions of dollars about to come to the state.
Now you would think those new funds (estimated to be several billion dollars over the next two years) would bail out Tennessee from its $900 million budget shortfall. But that money has lots of strings attached on how it will be used, plus it is one time dollars spread out over two years, and may not be coming again to the state once it is spent.
So in a move that is sure to earn the gratitude of the state's 2010 gubernatorial candidates, Governor Bredesen pledged to spend the funds in a way that will leave state government on a sound financial footing when his successor takes office in January, 2011. That's a resolve that could be tested by lawmakers however, because while the stimulus/rescue money will likely help the state avoid some layoffs (particularly in higher education predicts the Governor), it won't wipe out all the cuts or even some layoffs that might be required.
The Governor is trying to soften any layoff blows by asking for the power to amend some of the civil service rules involved in situation like this. At first, state employee union officials were quite alarmed at that, but now, after some meetings with the Administration, it appears they are more at ease with what is being proposed.
The Governor may also free up more dollars in the budget by changing the state's long standing policy to pay cash for major road and other capital projects and economic development incentives, especially those presently surrounding the agreements to bring the VW and the Hemlock plants to Tennessee. The state would instead issue bonds to cover those costs. But that won't solve all the state's money problems, so the Governor and Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz are warning of tough budget choices ahead.
The Governor's State of State speech was also somewhat overshadowed by persistent reports that he is under strong consideration to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration. Even a brief reference by the Governor about the need for national health care reform led to further speculation that the speech was some kind of audition for the cabinet job, which is frankly kind of ridiculous.
Mr. Bredesen himself has tried to play down expectations, although he hasn't said no thanks to taking the Washington job. He did say he doubted President Obama paid much attention to what he said in the speech (which is probably right), and the Governor has even spoken highly of a potential rival for the HHS post, Governor Sebelius of Oklahoma (although her chances may be hurt by being a potentially strong candidate to run for the U.S. Senate in that state next year).
That's not to say Bredesen's departure wouldn't cause some major political waves here in Tennessee, including placing a Republican, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey in the Governor's chair and making him a de-facto incumbent to run for that office in 2010. Then, I guess, those current gubernatorial candidates wouldn't be so pleased with the Governor. J
While several of the employees I have spoken to, in and around the Governor's office, remain very nervous about this situation, I remain a little dubious a presidential appointment will happen. But then given all the other strange things that have occurred here on the Hill in recent weeks, who knows? And now the Commerce Secretary job is open as well. Governor Bredesen is certainly a very successful businessman. So don't be surprised to see speculation about the Governor and that post as well.
THIS JUST IN....as I finish this column, the Governor's office has released his public schedule for next week. It has no public appearances early in the week, before he heads off to Washington Friday, February 20 to participate in a public policy forum at Georgetown University. Then he is set to attend the National Governors Association Winter meetings also being held inside the Beltway.
Hmmm......as former full-time journalist, I have a suspicious mind, and that kind of schedule sure peaks my interest a bit....and I'll bet it is sure to get the bloggers and the rumor mill going again.
In the nearly 40 years I have covered politics in this state, I have never seen a time such as we have today when both our state's major political parties (for different reasons) are embroiled in controversy and turmoil.
And that's our topic on INSIDE POLITICS this week as we talk with both state party chairs, Chip Forrester for the Democrats and Robin Smith for the Republicans.
We've already discussed in the column the continuing controversy about Speaker Kent Williams' ouster from the Republican Party and so that takes up quite a bit of time in our conversation with Chairman Smith. Her move to oust Speaker Williams is drawing some fire even from inside the GOP. That includes former state representative Ralph Cole ( a friend of Speaker Williams) who says the move could hurt the Republican candidate for governor in 2010 in upper East Tennessee. Cole also calls on GOP Chair Robin Smith to release the full results on how each GOP State Executive Committee member voted, something he says GOP voters (who elect the Executive Committee) have a right to know. Smith says no way that happens.
The Democrats may have an even deeper intra-party fight on their hands. The election of Nashville political activist Chip Forrester came despite the opposition of Governor Bredesen and the Democratic members of our congressional delegation. They don't think he can raise money or reach out and relate to voters in the rural and suburban areas of the state where many Democratic candidates, including President Obama, have been getting hammered in recent elections. Forrester says he can do the job and help move the Democrats towards regaining their majorities in the State House and State Senate next year.
It is an insightful half-hour of politics. I hope you can join us to see and hear these interviews, including discussion of the possibility that Robin Smith may herself become a candidate for Congress in the Chattanooga area with incumbent Congressman Zach Wamp now running for Governor.
INSIDE POLITICS can be seen several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK.
Fridays (February 13).........7:00 PM........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, COMCAST CHANNEL 50
Saturdays (February 14)....5:00 AM.......NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Saturdays (February 14)....5:30 PM......NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Sundays (February 15).......5:00 AM.......WTVF-TV, NEWSCHANNEL5
Sundays (February 15).......5:00 AM.......NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Sundays (February 15)......12:30 PM......NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Despite Mayor Karl Dean's impressive start to build support in the Metro Council for a three-year, 21% increase in water/sewer rates, I hear the e-mail lobbying has already begun. One Councilman I spoke to a few days ago (and he's not from a low or middle-income district) says his e-mail box is already overflowing with opposition to the Mayor's proposal, as folks just feel like they can't take any more increases in anything during these tough times.
I am also seeing, from a recent op-ed column in THE TENNESSEAN that opposition is building to a new storm water fee that the Dean administration wants to start collecting to deal with the chronic flash flood and drainage problems Nashville has endured for years.
The complaint is the fee is too large for small businesses and residents and too little for larger business operations. That's not a surprising complaint and I am sure it is something the Council will be made well aware of in the weeks to come. But some kind of storm water fee is long overdue. The way we have addressed this problem in the past, using water sewer funds, is not just inadequate, it is flat out illegal. If the city continues to fail to live up to its obligations, and funds its storm water work with bonds intended for other purposes (water/sewer repairs and expansion), perhaps taking the matter to court would bring some better resolution to the issue.