How Tennessee GOP’s majority used power to expel Democrats

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV) (George Walker Iv, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The expulsion of two Tennessee Democrats over a gun control protest is an extraordinary showcase of how the levers of single-party power in America's statehouses can be pulled not only to shut down opponents, but to also punish them.

On any given day in Tennessee, Republicans have the commanding majority to pass just about any law they want. The lopsided dynamic is common in many U.S. statehouses — including where Democrats are in charge — and it has widened under gerrymandered voting maps that redraw legislative district boundaries to dilute the opposition party's votes.

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But in ousting Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson altogether from the Tennessee Legislature on Thursday, Republicans went beyond their typical ability to steamroll Democrats. They instead maximized their parliamentary power to exact retribution.

Not only did Republicans have the votes to oust the lawmakers — one of the few times such drastic action has been taken since the Civil War — they suspended legislative rules of procedure to hasten the process.

The expulsions reverberated far beyond Tennessee, with Democrats in states where they're similarly outnumbered taking notice. GOP leaders defended their actions as necessary to send a message that disruptive protests in the Tennessee House would not be tolerated.

A third Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson, was narrowly spared expulsion by a one-vote margin.

“The erosion of democracy in the state Legislature is what got us here," Pearson said after his ouster. “It wasn’t walking up to the well, it wasn’t being disruptive to the status quo, it was the silencing of democracy and it’s wrong.”

THE TENNESSEE VOTE

In Tennessee, Republicans hold a supermajority control in both the House and Senate and have wielded full control of the Legislature since 2008.

But in the House, GOP members have increasingly used parliamentary maneuvers to cut off debate – particularly on controversial topics ranging from abortion to LGBTQ+ issues and guns. Republicans have used a legislative tactic known as “calling the question,” which forces an immediate vote on a bill and cuts off debate that can otherwise stretch on for hours.

In the days leading to the expulsion hearing, Republicans also employed what’s known as “suspending the rules,” which allows lawmakers to sidestep usual procedure — such as what happened on Thursday, when lawmakers suspended rules to allow the so-called “Tennessee three” to defend themselves.

Suspending the rules is not always divisive — it can be used to speed up passage of uncontentious bills, for example — but it can also inflame tensions.

Democrats who spoke during Thursday spent most of their time calling on Republicans to pass some sort of gun control legislation in the aftermath of the Nashville school shooting. But they also accused their GOP colleagues of having used the rules to keep debate to a minimum on other topics throughout the legislative session.

Several Democrats joked Thursday how they normally weren't allowed to talk at such length but got a minor break of sorts during the hearing because of to the national attention it had attracted.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, dismissed suggestions that Democrats have been silenced, saying lawmakers have many opportunities to speak up during legislative committee hearings and on the House floor.

“We haven’t had anybody complain,” Sexton said. “People raise their hands to be recognized. I don’t know who is going to call the question."

LEGISLATIVE TACTICS

The aggressive actions by Tennessee Republicans demonstrated a flip side to parliamentary tactics that lawmakers in the minority often use to as a last-ditch effort to thwart the other side. Among the most common are filibusters, in which lawmakers try to run out the clock on a bill through lengthy speeches.

In Nebraska, a filibuster brought lawmaking to a standstill for weeks this year over GOP legislation that would impose restrictions on transgender rights. State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, a Democrat, introduced amendment after amendment to every bill on the Senate floor and took up all eight debate hours allowed by the rules each day.

Two years ago, Texas Democrats temporarily stalled passage of new voting restrictions for weeks by breaking quorum and going on a 38-day walkout. They had quietly walked out of the House chamber one by one while facing the potential of Republicans calling the question for a decisive vote before a midnight deadline to pass the bill.

‘NUCLEAR OPTION'

Texas state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who helped spearhead the Democrats' walkout in 2021, described calling the question as a “nuclear option” and criticized it an offensive tactic to stop debate.

On Friday, he called the expulsions in Tennessee a warning for lawmakers in minority parties to keep their guard up. He said he was especially mindful of how state legislators act at a time when there is gridlock in Washington and the Supreme Court is throwing contentious issues back to the states to decide.

“If you can willy-nilly silence voices by changing rules, then I think that is a significant assault on our democracy," Fischer said.

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Weber reported from Austin, Texas.


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