It happens all the time. After a busy week with the legislature in session and lobbyists buzzing around Capitol Hill trying to strike deals, dozens of House Republicans will sit in secret meetings just feet from the Capitol press room.
Staffers at the doors refuse to let reporters or almost anyone else in. The only glimpse the public can get of what the voting majority is talking about can only be seen through narrow glass panes in the heavy wood doors.
That’s because the legislature is exempt from the state’s open meetings law.
With a month before newly elected lawmakers operating under a new Republican supermajority return to Capitol Hill, upper-level lawmakers say they’re willing to make more of those meetings open to the public.
“We don’t want to look like we’re hiding things behind closed doors,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, speaker of the Senate, telling The City Paper his chamber’s Republican Caucus meetings will be open “as a general rule.”
“I just think nine times out of 10, in life in general, most problems are caused by misunderstandings and from lack of information. When you see the sunlight shine on us, you say, ‘I see why you do that now,’ ” he said.
Those meetings should only be closed when the caucus elects its leadership next month or when “the family has fights within the family,” he said. “But if we’re discussing state policy, it’s open and always has been as far as I know.”
In the House, lawmakers aren’t so sure how wide they will extend their doors.
“One of the advantages of having a caucus meeting is to let people voice their opinions freely,” said Harwell who said she’d leave decisions to open normally closed-door meetings to the caucus.
Such closed-door meetings on the Hill fly in the face of the intent of the state’s open meetings law, which requires every other government entity to ensure even meetings between two voting members qualify as an appointment worthy of public announcement and scrutiny.
Tennessee’s open meetings law has a loophole large enough not only for the state legislature’s 96 Republican members to walk through but also the entire General Assembly.
State law says, “The formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
But the Volunteer State’s guiding document makes an exception for the General Assembly stating, “The doors of each House and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret.”
Each year, lawmakers can write rules to stiffen guidelines on what kinds of meetings must be public or kept private.
And because the state constitution forbids the lawmakers sworn in one year to write rules legislators two years from now will have to follow, what “ought to be kept secret” can change every two-year election cycle.
The issue is problematic particularly when Republicans in both chambers have enough members to conduct business without a single Democrat present, say open government advocates.
Republicans will have a 70-28 majority in the House of Representatives and a 26-7 majority in the Senate. In both chambers, the GOP holds a supermajority, or two-thirds of the chamber, and has the potential to hash out public policy debate in closed meetings instead of in public.
“Since the Republican-dominated legislature can pass any legislation at will, it will be more difficult for anyone to successfully challenge bills presented by the majority, but that makes it all the more important that objections to legislation be heard in committee and honestly debated,” said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
That holds true particularly for discussions about the state budget, said Flanagan, who points to years of lawmakers zipping through spending decisions without giving the public time to digest the facts. Redistricting maps were also approved early this year with little time for public debate.
The threat of policy discussions happening out of public view is something that frustrates John Harris, the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association who watched last year as a bill he favored advanced through committees only to stall out just short of a floor vote.
“I see a huge risk that the real debate the public should be entitled to hear on those issues will take place not in the committee rooms but in caucus meetings that are private and unbroadcast [sic] and there’s no reporters in there,” Harris said.
The bill would have allowed workers to stow their firearm in their vehicle parked at work. When the bill died, Harris and other gun rights advocates ultimately blamed Rep. Debra Maggart, the House Republican Caucus chairwoman for its failure. As the NRA and the TFA fueled a campaign to boot Maggart from office, she repeatedly linked the bill’s demise to her chamber’s Republicans taking a non-binding vote in a closed caucus meeting not to move on the guns legislation.
Those are the kinds of issues and debates that should happen entirely in public view, said Harris.
“I think it will be more of a charade,” said Harris about his fears of a legislature with stiffer Republican majorities meeting in closed caucus meetings. “An orchestrated, choreographed show to let the people see what they want us to see and not really see the debate and the substantive government in action.”
Republicans aren’t the first to have overwhelming majorities run the legislative branch. But often times, caucus meetings would be open to public examination.
While Harwell said she would leave any decision to open up the lower chambers’ Republican Caucus meeting to its members, that decision will likely fall to Rep. Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican and likely new caucus chairman.
“When it comes to government, the people should be very concerned. I don’t care what it is. We, those who are elected to office, from the county level to the presidency should always be accountable and you should always suspect us,” Casada said.
That’s why, he said, video-streamed and archived committee meetings are open to the public, to hold lawmakers accountable for what really matters — their vote.
“I contend we have safeguards that protect the open government and the need for the public to know how we vote and how we think,” Casada said.
The caucus may open up its doors when talking policy issues, Casada added, but those discussions usually happen within a meeting where other party issues are also on the table. When to open and close an individual meeting can get tricky, he said, adding, “I can’t think of any time when it was public policy only.”
Not everyone is concerned with keeping meetings closed, especially when the caucus has “internal bloodletting or butt kicking” to do within its ranks, said Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman.
For Turner, valid reasons for keeping meetings out of public view include discussing “something controversial” such as a member flubbing a vote or misbehaving in some way. “
Sometimes you get to call them out like that,” said Turner, who said he’s not worried about scheming behind closed doors.
Plus, Republicans in the new majority might not be so quick to upset people within their own ranks by abusing their ability to debate hot issues privately, said Frank Gibson, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Press Association.
“There are a lot of members in the General Assembly who were elected by support from groups like the Tea Party and the Tea Party doesn’t like government secrecy,” he said.