The Tennessee legislature is joining a growing nationwide outcry against Congress’ health care overhaul by enacting measures purporting to nullify the law’s mandate that all Americans buy insurance.
The Senate has voted 26-1 for the so-called Health Freedom Act, and the same bill is advancing toward passage in the House.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed that state’s version into law two weeks ago. Idaho’s legislature has passed one too, and similar proposals are pending in more than 30 other states.
Legal experts are virtually unanimous in saying the statehouse measures are unconstitutional because federal laws supersede those of the states. The issue of state nullification of national law was settled in the federal government’s favor 30 years before the Civil War. That makes today’s movement largely symbolic, the most prominent sign of public anger over the expansion of federal programs under President Obama.
“There’s a realization by average people … the people realize that our federal government is absolutely out of control,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said. “It’s borrowing too much, it’s spending too much and it’s pushing down on us here in the state of Tennessee.”
At Legislative Plaza, tea party activists have clogged the hallways twice over the past two weeks as lawmakers took up measures against health care reform.
“I ask you to give Democrat, Republican, independent individuals, freedom-loving Tennesseans a tool to try to fight this unprecedented move by the federal government,” Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, told a House subcommittee.
Last week, the subcommittee responded by passing the Health Freedom Act on voice votes as the tea partiers cheered. Also adopted were two proposed state constitutional amendments — one to ban the federal government from ever requiring that anyone buy insurance and the other to mandate the free enterprise system forever in Tennessee.
“I believe there’s a difference in health care reform and telling citizens exactly what they’re going to buy and when they’re going to buy it and Big Brother by far overstepping his bounds. This is simply steps to protect the citizens of Tennessee,” said Rep. Eric Swafford, R-Pikeville.
Only Democratic Reps. Jimmy Naifeh of Covington and Joanne Favors of Chattanooga raised any objections. As Favors spoke, tea partiers booed and jeered. “You lie!” one yelled.
During the meeting, the subcommittee’s chairman, Charles Curtiss, admonished protesters twice to stay quiet and threatened to eject them from the hearing room.
“I cannot understand how any legislator could come here … and not be supportive of citizens having access to health care,” Favors said. “If it has to be that it is a requirement, then so be it. That should not be something to get people all riled up about. Nobody is going to lose their rights.”
Republican candidates for governor — particularly Ramsey and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp — are trying to capitalize on the conservative outrage by filling their stump speeches with anti-Obama rhetoric. Ramsey is demanding that Tennessee join a chancy lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the health care law. In Wamp’s signature zinger, he vows to meet Obama at the state line if the president comes to Tennessee to do us wrong.
“Part of the reason I’m running for governor is because states are going to need to declare their sovereignty, stick together with other governors to protect freedom in our states and be willing to meet the federal government at the state line, whether it’s environmental regulations, the speed limit, gun laws, whatever the federal government’s doing that’s onerous,” the Chattanooga congressman says.
States “need to stand up … and say, ‘No — we’re going to meet you at the state line and negotiate with you, but you’re not going to run all over us anymore.’ We need tough strong governors who will stand up against the federal government.”
The hot rhetoric might work in a GOP primary, but even some Republicans worry about a backlash in the general election when more moderate voters go to the polls.
Tennessee Democrats have been slow to defend health care reform, although their caucus chairman in the House, Nashville’s Mike Turner, did cause a stir this month by suggesting that some of the president’s critics are motivated by racism.
Asked about the Republican attempts to nullify the law, Turner said: “I have one thing to say about that: Appomattox,” referring to the Virginia town where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant.
“We’ve got a lot of bills on states’ rights here, state sovereignty and all that,” he added. “We went through that fight once before. All of a sudden, we have a black man elected president and everybody wants to start acting like something’s wrong with our country. I didn’t agree with a lot of things George Bush did, but I wasn’t ready to secede from the union.”
Asked to elaborate afterward, Turner said, “I think some of the people who are against Obama are just against Obama because he’s African-American.”
Mike McWherter, the Democrats’ only remaining gubernatorial candidate after Kim McMillan’s withdrawal last week, spoke out at a recent campaign forum, foreshadowing a defining fight with the GOP nominee in November’s election.
“Access to affordable, adequate health care is something that every Tennessean ought to have. And this should not be an issue that we politically grandstand about,” McWherter said.