Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 7, 2017


By Pat Nolan, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company

April 7, 2017



It took an historic and controversial change in its rules but the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate has delivered President Donald Trump a much needed victory for his still-new administration.

In an almost straight party line vote, the upper chamber of the Congress invoked what’s called the “nuclear option” allowing the nomination of Appeals Court Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court to be confirmed by a simple constitutional majority (51 votes). That happened today (Friday) by a margin of 54-45.

Democrats had blocked the Gorsuch nomination by using a filibuster, which under the old rules took 60 votes to end the debate and then conduct the final vote. It was the Democrats while they held power in the Senate a few years back who first relaxed the filibuster rule for lower court nominations and other appointments. Now it applies to all nominations including the High Court.

The filibuster rules for legislation continues to be in place, although this latest change raises questions of when that might be ended as a continued sign of the increasing political polarization, not only in the Senate but throughout American politics. Indeed the polarization may grow still more because of this latest nuclear decision. For this and future presidents, they can now decide to nominate candidates to the Supreme Court that are much more radical or hard line (one way or the other on the political spectrum), knowing they only need 51 votes not 60 for confirmation.

President Trump’s Supreme Court nomination victory came in a week when there were still more eventful developments in Washington and in the Middle East. That’s where Syrian President Assad ordered his forces to launch another use of illegal poison gas killing nearly 100 of his own countrymen including several children. The barbaric action crossed “several lines” for President Trump and he ordered U.S. forces to launch Tomahawk Cruise missiles from nearby American ships to destroy the air base where the chemical gas attack originated.

The U.S. attack marked a sudden and near 180-degree turn in American policy on Syria and its bloody civil war. For months, the President has focused on fighting ISIS in Syria, ignoring the civil war and sat times making almost as favorable in his general comments about Syrian President Assad as he’s been about Russian President Putin, particularly as it concerns their joint fight against ISIS terrorism.

Prior to the Syrian gas attack, there were also comments made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Representative Niki Hailey that indicated a change in U.S. policy. The change seemed to

indicate the U.S. that would no longer require the removal of President Assad from power as a necessary first step to settle the bloody Syrian Civil War.

But then came the chemical gas attack which President Trump said crossed “many, many lines for me,” so much so he ordered the Cruise missile attack. His rhetoric also indicated he wanted to end the Syrian war and see Assad removed from power (or at least where he could no longer use illegal chemical warfare to hurt his own people). But in the wake of the U.S. missile response it remains unclear if there might be more U.S. use of force in that part of the world.

Such sudden 180-degree turns in foreign policy are rare and somewhat unsettling I suspect among our allies, although all of them are publicly strongly supporting the President’s action. So is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Even before the American strike, the junior Senator from Tennessee took the opportunity to go hard after both Assad and Russian President Putin. Quoting from a Thursday news release from his office Corker said; “First, the president now understands who Assad is, and Syria is being looked at in a very different place,” said Corker on Fox News. “Putin can show whether he’s worthy or not of being on the world stage by immediately withdrawing support for Assad or demonstrate that he really has no moral clarity as he continues to support this monstrous dictator that we have in Assad.”

On CNN, Corker insisted on accountability for Assad’s war crimes in Syria.

“He’s a brutal monster,” Corker said. “We need to put this guy in jail. He needs to be behind bars. We need to have him before a tribunal and hopefully this is enough evidence to get the world community behind that effort.”

In another shocking development just hours before the Syrian matter emerged, former alt-right publisher and the President’s chief political advisor Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council. It came in an executive order signed by the President himself. Perhaps no one appointment made by Mr. Trump has garnered more criticism than placing Bannon in such an important national security position while removing the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Advisor from the Council. It remains unclear why the move to remove Bannon was taken. It does not appear directly related to Syria? Did Bannon lose a power struggle over other issues within the White House? And what will it all mean going forward?

Of course, the Russian issue and how that country interfered with the 2016 elections remains front and center in Washington, along with what role President Trump, his campaign and Trump aides might have played. A criminal investigation by the FBI continues as do probes by both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee. The House investigation process saw a major development this week when the chair of the House Intelligence Committee relented under mounting criticism that he was too close to the White House and recused himself from the probe. Meanwhile, negotiations apparently continue about whether former National Security Director Mike Flynn who was fired by the White House for lying about his Russian ties would agree to testify before the committee in exchange for immunity.

So what might be the political outcomes of all these developments? The President’s use of force is bound to boost his job approval numbers as voters rally behind their Commander in Chief in a time of crisis. This has always been true for all our presidents. Criticizing Russia might also help Mr. Trump in that regard too, as well as his challenge to Mr. Putin to join in the effort to end the Syrian Civil War and

oust Assad which the Russians have rejected. Interestingly, the U.S. did warn Russia in advance about the strike to limit their folks’ exposure to danger, but it remains unclear what kind of briefing or heads up members of Congress received.

The President has more or less said the same thing to Russia about Syria as his administration has said to China about North Korea: Help us solve this problem or we will do it ourselves. With Mr. Trump sitting down in Florida this weekend for trade-dominated talks with the President of China, might what the U.S. has already done dealing with Syria also be on both leader’s minds, if not on the table, during those conversations?

Speaking of conversations, Republican leaders in Congress keep saying they are making progress to find unity behind a GOP health care bill they can pass. But every time it leaks out what changes might be made (changed coverage for pre-existing conditions) to a Republican health care proposal that unity seems to fall apart. Still my guest on INSIDE POLITICS claims her party will have a new bill ready to pass the House when they return to Washington in a few weeks from now after the Congressional Easter recess (read on).

It’s never dull moment.


Tennessee Congressman Marsha Blackburn is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week. We talk Syria; the failure of the GOP to pass its own healthcare plan; how President Trump is doing as he approaches his First 100 Days in Office; wiretapping; the Russia investigations; and that new controversial law she passed in the House involving internet privacy. It's not a dull conversation!

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include 7:00 p.m. Friday; 5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday; along with 1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on Just use your TiVo or DVR if those live times don't work for your schedule.


I am sure it wasn’t planned and nobody passed a resolution about it.

But this past week saw a renewed focus on ethics on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill…and it wasn’t very positive.

First, kudos to TENNESSEAN reporters Joel Ebert and Dave Boucher. They waded through hundreds of pages of disclosure reports from lawmakers and raised questions whether dozens of them are “double dipping.”

More specifically whether several of our elected representatives used their campaign funds to buy things that their per diem and mileage reimbursements should have covered, meaning they got paid twice for the same thing or “double dipping.”

Ousted and disgraced state representative Jeremy Durham was accused of doing quite a bit of this based on an investigation by state election officials. At the time, legislative leaders expressed concern, but said the practice of “double dipping” was not common. THE TENNESSEAN report as a part of its new USA TODAY TENNESSEE NETWORK would seem to suggest otherwise. In the wake of the news report, Governor Bill Haslam was quoted by the paper as saying this:

There needs to be some way to review current practices and see if it’s a repeated problem or one or two people out there,” Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday.

“I tend to think when you have more than a couple of examples of something that feels like it needs to be reviewed, then it is time to take an overall look at how things are working.”

State Senate leaders responded by saying they want Election Registry staffers (it’s a 10-member staff) to double the amount of audits they do on these financial disclosure reports. But to put that into full perspective, that would mean going from 2% of reports audited to 4% unless there are specific complaints about a lawmaker’s use of his funds.

State House Speaker Beth Harwell also points out that what is important in all this is that lawmakers are required to file these reports and therefore there is transparency for voters. Indeed it was quite interesting, and at times even amusing to see what THE TENNESSEAN reported lawmakers spent their funds to purchase. Tom Humphrey offered this brief summary on his TENNESSEE JOURNAL blog:

“…top billing (is) given to former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey paying a Barney Fife impersonator $1,000 to appear at a party after Ramsey announced he would not seek reelection. He also paid $1,400 to an Abraham Lincoln impersonator appearing at a farewell event following last year’s legislative session.

Among other examples: Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, spent $346 on “meals and entertainment” in a visit to UT Knoxville on the first day of football practice; Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, spent $137 on a wedding gift; Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, a minister by profession, had $2,500 in un-itemized expenses that included travel to two church conferences; and Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, spent “more than $16,000 of campaign money to pay for car washes, vehicle registration tags, SiriusXM Radio fees, oil changes, Christmas gifts, MTSU basketball tickets and an alumni membership to MTSU.”

THE USA TODAY TENNESSEE NETWORK story said lawmakers also spent their funds on a Sam’s Club membership, dues to the NRA and local civic clubs and sorority dues among other items. There were also eyebrow raising stories about the PAC used by a swanky downtown Nashville restaurant frequented by lawmakers, and how some of these elected officials also have been using campaign to employ family members.

And all this wasn’t the end of the ethics issue on the Hill this past week. THE TENNESSEAN reported that a House sub-committee has killed a bill to require lawmakers to disclose all gifts they receive of $100 in value or more. Meanwhile the full Senate approved a bill to double the amount of money they can raise from individuals, PACs and political parties. It would do so by re-setting the political fund raising cycles (and hence the $$ limits) every two years not every four years for Senators.

That’s only fair say Senators and it provides “equity” they say because the fund raising cycle for House members is reset every two years to match their term of office. Another Senator gave what seemed to

be an almost nonsensical reason for the change…that Senators represents three times more people than House members.

The original purpose of the bill being debated is to allow fund raising by lawmakers during fairly rare veto-override sessions. For years no money can be raised while legislators meet. It will be interesting to see if this amendment added in the Senate completely changes the debate and elevates the public and media focus on this matter.


Opponents of Governor Haslam’s IMPROVE ACT to raise the gas tax (but lower taxes on groceries and on manufacturing) want a redo on the measure. They called a news conference early this week to repeat their opposition to raising any tax. Instead they want the state to fund roads through the exiting general fund or using the existing $1 billion surplus the state enjoys. The Governor says that most of that surplus money is already spoken for and funding roads through a temporary surplus or existing general fund monies is short sighted in the long term.

Still those who oppose the Improve Act called on House Speaker Representative Beth Harwell of Nashville to bring the measure back to the Transportation subcommittee to give it a clean slate for more consideration and debate. You might recall when the bill passed through the sub-committees process in both Houses it didn’t always include the tax details which were added later when the bill came up in full committees.

But the sub-committee approvals are valid and Speaker Harwell’s office says she doesn’t have the power to send the bill back. That she says can only be done if the full House votes to do so. That takes 66 or a two-thirds vote which is unlikely.

But Speaker Harwell does appears to be plotting something that IMPROVE ACT opponents could like even better. It’s a move that would scuttle the Governor’s gas tax plans. Reports the TIMES FREE PRESS:

“Harwell’s spokeswoman Kara Owen confirmed the lawmaker has been talking with Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, R-Greeneville, and two other GOP leaders to develop an alternative that does not include a gas tax increase.

“The details have not been fully developed yet,” Owen said in an email, “but they are working diligently to offer something. [Harwell] knows members have a desire to find a solution for our transportation and infrastructure funding, and is encouraged by that agreement.

…Hawk, whose effort to divert existing sales taxes to the highway fund was shoved aside earlier this session in committee, revealed the effort as Haslam’s yet-again revised bill cleared the House Budget Subcommittee earlier in the day.

The potential rival transportation package coming from Speaker Harwell seemed to blindside several other GOP legislative leaders as well as Governor Haslam. Again as the TIMES FREE PRESS reports:

“…Budget Subcommittee Chairman Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, noted he had heard Hawk’s comments in the subcommittee, but he was taken aback at the speaker’s office’s statement.

“I think if you want to kill the bill, just come out and try to kill the bill,” McCormick said… Senators won’t go for it, McCormick predicted, a view that found quick confirmation from Senate Speaker McNally..

McNally said in a statement he has “been involved in no discussions regarding an alternative amendment, as you describe it.”

He said the Senate’s IMPROVE Act version, awaiting action next week in the upper chamber’s Finance Committee, is “a clear and undisputed tax cut for Tennesseans and offers additional cuts for the veterans and the elderly.

“These crucial and unprecedented cuts are only guaranteed funding in the current plan,” McNally added. “This is why it has my unequivocal support. While we are certainly open to discussions with our friends in the House, I believe the basic structure of the plan as amended is sound.”

Governor Haslam said through a spokesperson that it’s hard to react to a proposal that has not been disclosed publicly. The spokesperson also noted in contrast the Governor’s plan has been known and debated for several with other rival plans looked at by lawmakers but turned down in legislative committees.

The surprising move by Harwell, who is likely to announce her candidacy for Governor when the General Assembly adjourns for the year in a few weeks, came as it appeared the IMPROVE ACT legislation was moving ahead, gaining unanimous approval on a voice vote in the House Finance Ways & Means sub-committee on Wednesday.

It is set to be considered by the full House Finance Committee next week setting up a major confrontation if the Harwell plan is offered as an amendment. There is also talk of offering her plan on the floor of the House if and when the bill is debated there.

Obviously the Governor’s core opponents on the gas tax are not giving up. That’s not complete a surprise. What is unexpected is that Harwell, long a close Haslam ally would come out in opposition to the number one legislative priority the Governor is pushing on the Hill this year. Remember, it was just last summer that the Governor taped TV ads praising the Speaker for re-election. What are the odds he’d do that now to help her win the GOP gubernatorial primary in August, 2018? Has he already decided he’s for someone else (Bill Lee, Randy Boyd?) And will Harwell’s effort to torpedo the gas tax hike win her favor among conservatives? Already the chatter in social media is that her efforts are just an 11th hour effort to say she tried to stop the plan.

By the way, the IMPROVE ACT has now been dubbed the 2017 Tax Cut Act by supporters. But rarely if ever has a tax cut plan generated this kind of intrigue and controversy. It’s more of a potential minor issue now, but one other remaining sticking point in the IMPROVE ACT did seem headed towards a resolution. A property tax cut for disabled veterans has been removed from the House bill and placed in a separate piece of legislation. The Senate is expected to do so the same. But who knows what might happen as this gas tax debate continues to be fueled by surprises developments and other controversies. Especially in politics, nobody likes to be blindsided and once burned can be twice remembered. This bill seems destined for a conference committee to resolve with both houses right now potentially pretty apart.

Even as lawmakers left town, members of the Senate leadership are threatening to adjourn for a week the end of April so the House can get its act together and catch up on the work it needs to do to finish the session. Reports THE NASHVILLE POST:

“In a video posted to Twitter, Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson), the chair of the Finance, Ways and Means Committee, said that if Gov. Bill Haslam's IMPROVE Act passes out of committee next week and passes the full Senate on April 20, then they should be ready to pass a budget by May 2 and adjourn the week of May 8.

But if the bill can't pass in two weeks — which is a possibility, given the infighting in the House over any sort of tax increase, no matter the size — Watson says the Senate will be staying home the week of April 24.

Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) filed a resolution on the Senate floor Thursday morning to allow for an adjournment if needed.

"Every time we try to be open and forthright about our planning and our schedule, somebody in another chamber in this capitol gets their pants in a twist," Norris told the chamber.

Later, speaking to reporters, Norris did not mince words when asked about House Speaker Beth Harwell's newly announced tax plan that will not include a gas tax hike, in opposition to the governor's wishes.

"There's a fine line between indecision and deception. Next question," Norris said.


THE POST report continues:

“Democrats also bashed Harwell's new stance… saying they will not vote for any amended version of Greenville Rep. David Hawk's tax plan, which failed in committee earlier this year; Harwell's plan is reputed to adopt some aspects of it.

"If you got a team of tax professionals to come up with the worst possible plan, I think you’d end up with the Hawk plan," said House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Stewart said, before taking a further dig at Harwell. "Unless you’re a Republican primary voter, there’s not much in the Hawk plan to favor."


It expected to be made official next week. Tennessee State Senator Mark Green of Clarksville will be nominated by President Donald Trump to be Secretary of the Army.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, it will mean Green will resign his legislative post and abandon his 2018 campaign for governor. Green was the first candidate to enter the Republican field and his departure leaves up in the air who the Tea Party wing of the GOP will support in the August 2018 primary. Already State Senator Mae Beavers says she is looking at the race and so is former Representative Joe Carr, who has become a perennial conservative candidate in recent election cycles.

The GOP gubernatorial field continues to grow. Franklin businessman Bill Lee says he is likely to enter the field “sooner rather than later” in the next few weeks. Another candidate mentioned earlier in this column, businessman and former Economic and Development Commissioner Randy Boyd has already announced and he is touring the state campaigning.

In addition to Speaker Harwell who we mentioned earlier as a likely candidate, others who seem to be possible GOP candidates are Congressman Diane Black, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris. Buy stay tuned. I am told there might be changes ahead in the cast of potential candidates being mentioned.


If you paid attention in yours civics and/or history classes while you were in school, you’ll remember that the state legislatures across the country used to select our U.S. Senators, not the voters in each state, with the governors naming interim senators in case of a vacancy due to resignation or death. The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution adopted in 1916 put in place the current process.

For the second year in a row, some Tennessee lawmakers want to modify that. Last year’s effort to require an immediate special election to fill a Senate vacancy rather than a gubernatorial selection, did make it out of committee.

But this year, the House Local Government Committee has voted 9-3 to have the General Assembly pick a replacement Senator by a majority vote if there is a vacancy. The bill sponsored by Representative Mary Littleton of Dickson in the House would also require that the new interim Senator be from the same political party as the Senator that was in office. The companion bill for Littleton’s measure is being sponsored in the Senate by Brian Kelsey and was due to be up for consideration Wednesday.

So is the bill before the Legislature constitutional? Maybe not says Daniel Diorio, a senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislature. He told THE TENNESSEAN the proposal if passed would certainly be unique among the 50 states:

““The reason being of the clear language of the 17th Amendment,” Diorio said.

The 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided that the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.”

As for a lawmaker’s response to questions about the bill’s legality, one committee member gave this rather revealing if disconcerting response to the paper:

“Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, said he thought the legislature has passed a lot of constitutionally suspect bills since he’s been a lawmaker. “So I say let’s move forward,” Eldridge said.


It’s pretty rare when a committee vote on the Hill brings a round of applause from the audience.

But NEWSCHANNEL5’s say that’s what occurred when the House Transportation Committee this week voted 9-7 to approve a bill to require seat belts on school buses. The measure is a result of a series of crashes late last year especially one on November 21 that killed six students in Chattanooga. But the cost or fiscal note of what it will take the state and local governments to implement the bill is pretty steep.

That led the measure’s House sponsor, Representative JoAnn Favors of Chattanooga to amend her proposal as outlined by the NEWS FREE PRESS:

“The lawmaker said she tried to address her original bill’s “astronomical costs” to state government and local school systems. Changes push back the implementation mandate a year so that new school buses would have to come equipped with safety restraint systems beginning July 1, 2019. And they delete the requirement that all buses must have the safety belts as of July 1, 2023. They also eliminate a seat belt retrofitting provision.

Legislative analysts’ fiscal note on the original bill estimated a state cost of nearly $12 million a year over five years, with a $70 million per year cost over six years for school districts. Favors’ changes would increase state expenditures by $2.15 million a year going forward, with the money going to local schools. Local schools’ cost would be $12.91 million annually going forward.

Legislative analysts estimate schools replace about 600 buses a year. There are an estimated 9,000 buses owned by districts or by their contractors.”

Still, even with the changes to lower costs, committee members urged the sponsor to delay pushing the bill until next year to help find more funding. However other felt the time to act is now:

“ Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, drew applause from Chattanooga parents, grandparents and Woodmore students when he pointed to the state’s $1 billion budget surplus and said “we have an opportunity to do something for the safety of children today and not push it down the road again.

“We got a problem in front of us that we can solve here and now,” Mitchell said. “And I think it’s time for action.”

The bill next goes to the House Education Planning Committee where the newspaper quoted lawmakers as saying the measure may face even tougher going. The companion bill in the Senate is also tracking ahead while also facing similar headwinds of resistance.


There is yet still more controversy about whether to move the tomb of former President James K. Polk and his wife, Sarah from the State Capitol. A plan to re-bury the former President and his spouse at the Polk ancestral home in Columbia has been approved by the State Senate and is still pending in the State House.

Several state agencies must sign off even as the amount of controversy over the move continues to increase. Reports THE TENNESSEAN regarding a letter sent by an executive of the Tennessee Historical Commission:

“Saying the move would “create a false sense of history,” E. Patrick McIntyre, the commission’s executive director, sided against moving the remains to the James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia.

“Moving the tomb 50 miles and placing it within or adjacent to the National Historic Landmark setting at the Polk Home would take away a historic element from the Capitol grounds and falsely change the historic setting surrounding the Polk Home,” McIntyre said in the letter to the James K. Polk Memorial Association

But a representative of the Polk Memorial Association did not take kindly to those comments. THE TENNESSEAN article continues:

“(The) tomb where it is located on the Capitol is the worst memorial to a president in the United States, and for a staff person to say that’s fine is inane,” said Doug Jones, the lawyer for the Polk Museum.

In a telephone interview, Jones blasted the letter, dismissing the executive director as a staffer who does not have the authority to rule on the project.

“For a staff person to come out to make these outlandish comments is unfounded,” Jones said.

The Polk Museum is under a grant agreement with the historical commission, and the commission learned that the museum had endorsed the project through a public notice in a newspaper, which might be a violation of the management agreement, according to the letter. The commission goes on to assert that the museum has no legal grounds to move the body from the Capitol.

This certainly appears to be an ongoing issue that is nowhere near ready to lie in peace.


Nashville has lost another of its icons with the passing this week of civic leader Margaret Ann Craig Robinson at the age of 92.

If you want to pay tribute to her, visit (hopefully not for the first time), Nashville’s Downtown Public Library. Even almost 20 years after it opened, it’s still the finest local public building I have ever experienced.

When THE NASHVILE SCENE named Margaret Ann its Nashvillian of the Year in 2001, former Nashville Mayor and later Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen said the Downtown Library wouldn’t have happened without her hard work to build support especially among members of the Metro Council who had to approve funding for the project, along with the 5 regional libraries that then Mayor Bredesen proposed to bring our city’s library system out of the dark ages.

Bredesen’s praise for Robinson is particularly telling since most media accounts always give the credit for the Nashville library expansion to Bredesen himself. The quest is still not done. It’s been almost two decades since Nashville decided that “a world class city really does need a world class library” (just like the bumper stickers said on some many cars back in the late 1990s when the new downtown library and the rest of the library improvements were first approved).

Nashville has grown…a lot. We need upgrades and more regional libraries. I can’t think of a better way to honor Margaret Ann Craig Robinson’s memory than to move ahead in the very near future on a now (again) overdue enhancement of our library system.

I first met Margaret Ann when I was in the Mayor Fulton’s office and she had just become the chair of the Library Board. While we were both native Nashvillians, we had very different upbringings and backgrounds. It didn’t matter. She had the kind of warm, friendly personality that always made you feel good about being with her whenever we were together. I will miss her. So will her hometown.

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