O’Hara: 3 ways Tennessee lawmakers could honor McCain

Gov. Bill Haslam gives a copy of his final State of the State speech to Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With The Tennessee Journal on break this week, former Tennessean political reporter Jim O’Hara offers some thoughts about how Tennessee might honor the legacy of the late U.S. Sen John McCain through some changes in the General Assembly:

Much was written last week about the best ways to honor the late Senator John McCain, from possibly re-naming the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., to general pleas for more civility and bi-partisanship in our politics.

Let me propose three ways for Tennessee to act, not just talk, about honoring the late senator.

When the 111th Tennessee General Assembly convenes in January, the speakers of the Senate and House should name three committee chairs from the other party. In the Senate that would still leave the majority party with nine chairmanships. In the House that would leave the majority party with 14 chairmanships.

But it would be a concrete step toward bi-partisanship. And there is precedent. As was noted in the Knoxville News Sentinel obituary this summer for state Representative and Minority Leader Tom Jensen, “At the time Jensen was in the House, Democrats permitted Republicans to chair committees, and Jensen was in charge of one on ethics and disclosure.”

The second way, would be for the speakers to announce that three issues of major statewide importance will be substantively addressed with bi-partisan legislative packages. For each issue, the speakers will appoint a majority and minority co-chair of a task force to work out the details of those packages.

It shouldn’t be hard to come up with three issues that deserve bipartisan attention and solution.

Here’s a start:

■ Opioid addiction and abuse. The Tennessee Together initiative spearheaded by the Haslam Administration and passed in the last legislature was significant and a serious down payment. Is there more to do? Most likely.

■ Public health/healthcare. The 2017 State of Obesity report found Tennessee with the 6th highest rate of adult obesity in the U.S. in 2016, and The Commonwealth Fund report released last spring found Tennessee’s children the “heaviest” in the nation. The last sessions of the legislature never found common ground on Medicaid expansion. Is there more to do? Surely.

■ Transportation and infrastructure. The Improve Act, the fuel tax hike passed in 2017, is already at work, as anyone driving 440 knows, but that legislation was aimed at addressing a backlog of projects.  Looking toward and anticipating the future is even harder.  Is there more to do? Most assuredly.

Finding three issues won’t be hard.  Stopping at three issues will be harder.

A final way to honor John McCain’s legacy would be for the speakers to initiate Tennessee’s own version of the so-called Hershey Retreats. Begun in the late 1990s and continued into the early 2000s, The Pew Charitable Trusts sponsored the Hershey Retreats for the U.S. House of Representatives. It was a pretty simple idea: Get the House members out of Washington, D.C., along with their families, for a long weekend in Hershey, Pennsylvania. There was a schedule of talks and presentations, but most of all there was time for the members – Democrats and Republicans – to get to know each other as people with many of the real-life burdens that they themselves had. And then take those relationships back to Washington, and use them to find common ground in law-making.

The second retreat took place after the impeachment of then President Bill Clinton. Paul Light, the Pew director in charge of the retreat, wrote this at the time: “There may not be enough chocolate in the world to heal the divisions created by last month’s impeachment debate in the House, but Members should keep the … Hershey, Pa., Congressional retreat on their calendars nonetheless.

“Uncomfortable though it might be for Democrats and Republicans to break bread together, the retreat will give them a rare opportunity to begin rebuilding the comity lost over the long march to impeachment.”

Light’s words are a reminder that, no matter how difficult and how dark a political time may seem, a uniquely American optimism maintains. John McCain embodied it. Putting it into political practice in Tennessee seems a fitting memorial.

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