Sunday, December 8, 2002

REACH OUT TO THE GOP?

Naifeh needs to think like Wilder -- let the 'House be the House.'

Posted By on Sun, Dec 8, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Untitled Document

NASHVILLE -- Lt. Gov. John Wilder, who usually refers to himself in the third person, says he is in touch with the cosmos and all is well.

State House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, whether he admits it or not, must borrow a page from Wilder’s book -- except for the cosmos chapter -- if he plans to keep his job and control the lower chamber of Tennessee’s General Assembly.

Wilder, the longest serving head of a legislative body in the United States, has maintained his control of the Senate since 1987 through a coalition of Democrats and like-minded Republicans.

Naifeh, a Covington Democrat, presides over the 99-member House of Representatives largely by controlling his 53 fellow Democrats

For the 103rd General Assembly that convenes Jan. 14, Naifeh is going to need more than Democrats to prop him up. He’s going to need Republicans, plenty of them.

Some House Democrats are grumbling loudly that Naifeh cedes too much control to certain colleagues whom critics call the “West Tennessee Mafia.” Indeed, the No. 2 House leader, Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry, is from Memphis. The Democratic Caucus chairman is Randy Rinks of Savannah. Former Finance Committee chairman Matt Kisber, who did not seek re-election, is from Jackson.

Between them, they have controlled the House. That will change somewhat in the coming legislative session.

This time around, there is talk of dissident Democrats joining with Republicans, who have 45 members in the House, to form a coalition that would oust Naifeh.

Naifeh is working to head that off.

His best bet is handing out a few committee offices, maybe a chairmanship or two, to Republicans, giving them a seat at the table they had previously been denied.

Wilder has less of a grip on the Senate, but then it’s not his nature to rule with an iron fist.

In Wilderese, “the Senate is the Senate.” That means each of the 33 senators has a voice that can be heard long before legislation reaches the Senate floor, where its fate has already been decided.

One complaint about the House is that power is wielded by only a few. The House Finance Committee has 30 members, and nine of those serve on the budget subcommittee, the dreaded “black hole” where legislation can live, die or languish until it is blessed by Democratic leadership.

Legislation with a yearly cost of $100,000 or more -- that applies to most major bills -- automatically is assigned to the Democratic-dominated Finance Committee. Most of those bills, in turn, wind up in the “black hole.”

The “black hole” is supposed to determine the budgetary impact of legislation, but some lawmakers say the subcommittee has actually changed the intent of legislation.

Veteran Rep. Frank Buck of Dowelltown, made that complaint in an emotional speech to fellow House Democrats during their caucus meeting two weeks ago. Buck, a small-town lawyer who speaks his mind, received nothing but silence after his speech.

Buck also warned about the need for bipartisanship, noting that House Republicans gained three House seats this year and Democrats must recognize the GOP’s growing influence.

Later, Naifeh said Buck’s comments were inappropriate, especially given that the gathering was the first for freshmen legislators.

Whether he likes it or not, the time has come for Naifeh to reach out to Republicans. He should appoint Republicans to committee offices and give them more of a voice in the General Assembly.

That approach has worked well for Wilder, who can count on Republicans when he needs them.

It can work well for Naifeh, too.

All he has to do is give it a try.

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