Special Session Politics in Nashville 

Two Cheers for Democracy was the title of an influential tome published in 1951 by the renowned English author E.M. Forster. The book was a collection of essays measuring authoritarian and totalitarian systems of government, with their single-minded and brute agendas, against the flawed, occasionally fragile and floundering, but somehow enduring democratic governments of the Western world.

Jeremy Durham
  • Jeremy Durham
Forster's conclusion overall is summed up in the grudging compliment to the latter, implied by the irony of his book's title. Hardly an uncritical booster, Forster was fully aware of all the tawdry compromises, pig-headed partisanships, and back-and-forths of parliamentary political systems, but he saw them as the best governmental solutions possible, given the inherent defects of humankind. 

A case in point:  In Nashville this week, the General Assembly has been called back into session by Governor Bill Haslam to deal with a legislative oversight in this spring's regular session that would cost the state $60 million in federal transportation funds. The problem was a new state law that increased the allowable blood-alcohol level for drivers under 21 from .02 percent to .08 percent. Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration informed the state that the change clashed with federal zero-tolerance legislation that requires the .02 level for states to qualify for its full share of federal funding.

Facing an imminent deadline of October 1st, beyond which the state's funding allotment would be cut by 8 percent, Haslam didn't monkey around. He called the special session, and all indications are that the General Assembly will fix the offending glitch post-haste.

So far, so good. The system works, hurrah! Meanwhile, the Republican leadership of the state House of Representatives indicated it wanted to use the occasion of the special session to expel one of its own, state Representative Jeremy Durham of Franklin, who became a huge embarrassment after an investigation by state Attorney General Herb Slatery implicated him in 22 instances of apparent sexual harassment of women.

Expulsion of Durham (who lost a reelection campaign this year in the wake of the investigation) would relieve the state of the obligation for annual pension payments to the offender and would seem to be a no-brainer. That's where things get complicated. On Monday, when Representative Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) announced her intent to file a motion for expulsion, several Democratic members unexpectedly raised objections — based on procedural issues, concerns for due process, and what-have-you.

The reason for the Democrats' obstructionism was not so noble. The minority Democrats have no love for Durham, their frequent scourge in the past. But they wanted to extend debate on the matter long enough to make a case that the Republican leadership sat on the Durham scandal until it became impossible to prevent public awareness of it. The bottom line: Maximizing negative publicity for the GOP super-majority.

E.M. Forster would have no trouble understanding the motive — one of partisanship, pure and simple. In any case, it, too, is how the system works.


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