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Welcome to the Future--in Tennessee

As the country gets more and more partisan and swing states disappear, blue states will become bluer and red states will become redder. That means it will become more and more common for state legislative chambers to have supermajorities of two-thirds or more. That's kind of the magic number number because it usually takes a two-thirds majority to override an executive veto, a two-thirds majority to expel a member, and a two-thirds majority to convict anyone in an impeachment trial. In Tennessee, we just saw that a two-thirds majority of state House Republicans could expel two young Black members who protested the lack of action on the part of the legislature after a school shooting occurred in Nashville. Although no one has said the quiet part out loud there (yet), the real reason is "we did it because we can." It is not due (entirely) to racism, because the Tennessee lawmakers also tried to expel a white woman. They just came up one vote short on her. In an interesting op-ed, Jeff Greenfield addresses this new world.

Expelling a member used to be extremely rare and only done in extreme circumstances. Until last week, the most recent member of the Tennessee legislature expelled was state Rep. Jeremy Durham (R), who was accused of sexually harassing women. The state AG investigated this and found 22 cases where he had done this, including a 20-year old woman he plied with a cooler of beer. After the report came out and Durham refused to resign, he was expelled. The next most recent expulsion from the Tennessee legislature was 36 years earlier, when state Rep. Robert Fisher (R) was expelled for soliciting a $1,000 bribe from Carter County Sheriff George Papantonioys to kill a bill the sheriff opposed. The third most recent expulsion in Tennessee was 124 years before that. They used to be very rare and done only when the expellee had engaged in deeply problematic behavior. Demanding action to prevent children in the state from being murdered is not deeply problematic behavior. In the absence of a supermajority, the two lawmakers who were expelled would simply have gotten a reprimand for being disorderly.

Next door in North Carolina, supermajorities in the state legislature greatly reduced the power of the state executive branch once Democrats won those positions (particularly the governorship). If Republicans win them in the future, no doubt the powers will be restored.

In Wisconsin, the situation is worse. Even though Wisconsin is probably the most evenly split state in the country, Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers due to their intense gerrymandering. This means they can pass any bill they want to and then override the veto from the governor, effectively undoing the fact that Wisconsinites choose a Democrat as governor. Obviously they can also expel any Democrat they don't like from either chamber. If they are clever, they could begin with members from swing districts they could win in the resulting special elections.

Even more ominous, state Sen. Dan Knodl (R) has said he would "certainly consider" impeaching Janet Protasiewicz, although he said this before she was elected to the Supreme Court. If she were to rule that abortion violates the state Constitution, the state House could impeach her for conspiring to murder unborn babies. And if she were to rule that the state legislative districts were unconstitutional, they could impeach her for, because, well, "We can." That would undoubtedly be followed by a new law stripping the state Supreme Court of the power to judge state maps. The law would be vetoed and then the veto overridden.

Would the legislature dare to this? Well, we got a preview in 2018. After Wisconsin voters chose Democrats for governor and attorney general, the legislature and the lame-duck governor passed a new law greatly reducing the power of both offices—because "We can."

Greenfield concludes by saying that the most important elections of the 21st century occurred in 2010, when Republicans flipped 20 legislative chambers and set us on the current course. This happened in no small part because Barack Obama didn't put any effort into retaining state legislative chambers, even though he had been a state senator himself. State legislatures are important. Surprise. Who knew? (V)

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