Spineless Cop-out on “Monkey” Bill #TNLeg #TNGov

Acceding to an Extremist Agenda
Its been widely reported, to the dismay of Science instructors statewide that yesterday TN Gov. Bill Haslam allowed HB 368 to become law without his signature.

The bill, which pushes a “Teach the Controversy” agenda, preferred by groups like the Discovery Institute and the folks at the Creationism Museum seeks to push the notion that evolution is a theory in crisis, questioned by scientists and lay people alike.

Unfortunately, aside from the folks who are actually pushing creationism, in the form of Intelligent Design or whatever marketing phrase they’ve come up with this week, there is no controversy.

Evolution is accepted by scientists and many communities of faith, including the Catholic Church, though they believe evolution is guided by the hand of God. Which is fine actually, and pretty close to what I believe myself. (So do Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and even Nazarenes)

What’s more, the idea of “Teaching the Controversy” has been struck down in court after court, starting with the Supreme Court in 1987, and continuing on with Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District and Selman v. Cobb County School District.

The only controversy that exists is with people who stubbornly hold that there is a controversy, something that even the good Governor, apparently, doesn’t believe.

Its pretty striking that Haslam allowed the bill to become law, and it says a lot about both the powers of the executive and the political willingness to exercise those powers in the current administration. In short, there is little.

There’s no question that a veto from the Haslam administration would have been overturned by the legislature. The bill passed soundly, and with the support of 11 Democrats:

House: Eddie Bass – Prospect, Charles Curtiss – Sparta, John DeBerry – Memphis, Mike Kernell – Memphis, Mary Pruitt – Nashville and Harry Tindell – Knoxville.

Senate: Charlotte Burks – Monterey, Lowe Finney – Jackson, Douglas Henry – Nashville, Eric Stewart – Winchester, and Reginald Tate – Memphis

That said, it would have been a stand-up gesture nonetheless.

I understand the politics of this from Haslam’s perspective. By not signing it, he doesn’t endorse the bill. By not vetoing it, he doesn’t appear to lose to the legislative branch. Win-win right?

Well, probably not. See appeasement which has been a “synonym for weakness and even cowardice since the 1930s” isn’t a good strategy for leaders. Just ask Neville Chamberlain, or maybe even the Blue Dog Coalition, which practiced a brand of appeasement to try to hold on to power.

As it turns out, taking a stand is something people seem to expect from their leaders. And while Haslam may not have run afoul of social conservatives in Tennessee, or their buddies in the General Assembly, he has shown a willingness to contort himself to stay out of conflict, for his own personal gain, which will eventually work against him.

Take the report from last week where the Governor expressed his frustration with the media for covering the “craziest” bills coming out of the legislature. Cara Kumari, reporter for WSMV in Nashville, responded to his charge thusly:

“Crazy” is in the eye of the beholder. And not everyone in the governor’s party agrees with his assessment of “crazy”. I’ve covered the governor’s domestic violence proposal, the food tax reduction, and issues surrounding synthetic drugs and prescription drug abuse. I’ve spent a lot of time covering the NCLB waiver and done stories about the switch to common core standards. However, we cover what’s happening. A lot of time in the legislature is being spent on these other issues. These issues have constituencies who feel passionately about them. In the end, blaming the media does nothing except get me to write a long blog about it.

I agree with the Governor that many of these issues are indeed “crazy”. But equating “crazy” with “lazy media” is a stretch. If the good Governor doesn’t like these issues. If he thinks they’re hurting the state, then I encourage him to sit down with Speaker Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ramsey and tell them to knock it off. That’s what a leader would do.

But that’s not what Haslam is doing. He’s a hostage in his own castle, and his policy of appeasement to these “crazy” issues is partially to blame.

There’s no question that due to the low veto override threshold (a simple majority in both houses does it) that the legislative branch has exponentially more power to enact law than the governor has to prevent law from being enacted. There’s also no question that the Governor is probably more interested in getting his budget through the legislature. Considering they haven’t even really started on that in earnest, and are planning to end this session in the next week or so, I can sympathize, on some level, with the political problem he has on his hands in terms of stepping up, only to be knocked down on not only this fight, but another bigger battle…the budget.

That said, if the General Assembly really wants to get out quick so they can get to raising money for the Fall, they’re going to ram it through like they have so many other things. So there’s that.

The governor has a task to attend to: governing. That task isn’t always fun or easy and it means he carries a lot of the blame for what does or doesn’t happen, whether its right or not. Most folks barely know who their state legislators are…but they know who the Governor is, and that’s who they blame when things go wrong.

If Haslam thinks he can inoculate himself from the goings on of the General Assembly by not exercising his executive authority and blaming the media…when he’s been complicit with all the “crazy” bills that come out of the body, he’s got another thing coming. While he may not carry the blame for crafting these “crazy” bills, he does carry the blame of complicity, which is just as bad.

I think on some level, Gov. Haslam believes that by not staking any claim to a position he can somehow save himself from a challenge from the extreme right of his party. He’s wrong about this. That challenge is coming, though it will likely be unsuccessful. By not asserting himself, he’s also weakening his position, which is just fine by me.

In the end, what the first year and a half of the Haslam administration has shown us is that he is happy to bend to the pressure of extremists on his side, if only to give the perception that there are no fractures between his agenda and the agenda of the legislature. In doing so, he is executing a marketing strategy not a governing strategy.

The people of Tennessee elected a governor not a marketer in chief. Its time for Governor Haslam to start showing some backbone and get to the work of governing.

See Also:
Tennessee’s top scientists oppose “monkey bills”
Vanderbilt Professor and 3,200 Tennesseans Urge Haslam to Veto Science Education Bill
Southern Beale
Nashville Scene

2 Replies to “Spineless Cop-out on “Monkey” Bill #TNLeg #TNGov”

  1. By weaseling out on bills like this (and every other extremist, fringe bill coming out of the legislature), Haslam is empowering the nuts. They are results-driven, and their crazy stuff is becoming law. Who cares if Haslam signed it or not, it’s still state law! They got what they wanted and this will encourage them to an even more radical agenda.

    That’s fine for Tennessee, land of the gap-toothed & barefoot. But I thought we were trying to be 21st century state, industry-friendly, economc leaders and all that. Every signal we’re getting from the state legislature is the polar opposite.

    And this is why I don’t vote Republican. Eleven Democrats voted for this bill. If you want “divided government” vote for the Democrats. We have a really big tent: eleven Democrats are as wingnutty and fringey as the Republicans. Those concerns will get heard. They just, thank God, won’t become law.

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