Analysis: Why House Republicans used the special session to take on almost everyone – Tennessee Lookout

It took House Republicans less than 10 minutes to pass four bills after Democrats walked off the floor protesting the silencing of Rep. Justin Jones for the second time in five months.

As Jones, D-Nashville, and his 23 colleagues walked off the floor, the sounds of boos and shouts of “fascists” rang from the gallery. But the minority party’s departure allowed the House GOP to swiftly pass legislation, like harsher juvenile crime penalties, briefly showing an alternative reality where the Republican caucus could move through its bills at a record pace.

As the party controlling 75 of 99 seats, united House Republicans can pass or block any legislation, like Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed emergency order of protection (“ERPO”). Their only constraint is time and stamina, which Democrats like Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, realized they could use to their advantage by slowing the legislative process down during debate and using a motivated crowd as a constant nuisance to members stuck on the floor for hours at a time.

These circumstances are why the House Republican changed its rules, spent the week hounding Senate Republicans to stay and largely ignored the proposals of Gov. Bill Lee and Covenant parents.

Lee’s special session, called in response to the Covenant School shooting, ended after eight days Tuesday, with lawmakers approving three bills and $110 million in spending, mainly for mental health and public safety grants.

The legislation list included sales tax breaks on gun safes and locks, a new report from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on human trafficking and the codifying of an executive order on background checks.

None of the legislation addressed who can own or access guns, like the handgun and two rifles used by the Covenant shooter to fire 152 rounds that killed three adults and three children in Nashville on March 27.

Instead, House Republicans spent the five months between the shooting and special session unwilling to discuss Lee’s ERPO, using their time to devise a strategy to ensure they could silence dissenting Democrats and limit how much of the public lawmakers had to face.

While over in the Senate, most Republicans decided they didn’t want to participate in Lee’s special session, siding with the Tennessee Firearms Association’s position on ending the session quickly.

“We have a lot of great groups here,” Rep. Anthony Davis, D-Nashville, said while debating one of the passed bills. “They’re only asking us for a couple of things. An ERPO and safe storage with some actual teeth to the legislation. That’s the minimum they’ve asked for, and we haven’t done that.”

To Covenant School parents, the original intent of the special session seemed lost because, from the start, Republicans refused to sponsor an ERPO bill to remove guns from those deemed dangerous by a judge.

House Republicans gained some favor from parents for running legislation to upgrade schools’ active shooter plans and block certain children’s autopsies from being public records.

But still, there was no legislation explicitly surrounding guns.

“We have the potential for safer, brighter schools and communities for our children,” said Sarah Shoop Neumann, one of several Covenant School mothers who attended session each day. “But that takes boldness from our elected officials to speak out for what is right. They have to choose sanctity of life for all of our children over the loud voices of firearm associations.”

As the session ended, Neumann and other Covenant parents gathered in tears over the lack of action on guns, recalling the horrors their children experienced.

“They saw the bodies, kids massacred by high-capacity automatic rifles,” Neumann said. “Do you know what it does to a child’s body? Because the 9-year-olds know what it does to a child’s body.”

House GOP feuds with the public and Democrats over new rules

House Republicans started the special legislative session by passing rules allowing them to silence Democrats deemed “disruptive” and “off-topic,” banned groups from carrying signs, and restricted who could access the Capitol and sit in its galleries. The new gallery rules closed off one side to the public, limiting the number of protesters able to fill the chamber, but those with verified badges, like media, lobbyists and staffers, were allowed to fill the empty section.

From the House floor podium, Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, told members the rules were necessary to prevent the “overtaking” of the House floor, referencing when Jones and Pearson used a bullhorn on the floor in the days preceding the shooting. The conversation echoed back to the expulsion hearing, where Garrett tried through a video to paint the bullhorn incident as a riot-like event.

“There are no repercussions except expulsion or censure,” Garrett said. “Everyone begged for something other than that.”

The rules were a tacit acknowledgment that the expulsion hearings held four months prior were not only a financial boon to the fledging Democratic party but a public relations nightmare that brought unwanted national attention to Tennessee, all but eliminating the state from contention to host the 2028 Republican National Convention.

Throughout the session’s eight-day run, decorum, etiquette, and rule-following became a staple of the House proceedings.

Crowdgoers and representatives alike were subject to the gavel of House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, with its consistent use bleeding over into committees. Rep. Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, the chairman of the civil justice subcommittee, used his power to have Tennessee state troopers forcibly remove three women from the audience for bringing signs into a meeting.

The removal allowed the women to file a lawsuit over the rules, with a judge ruling the House sign ban violated the First Amendment.

When facing questions from reporters, Sexton declined to explain his reason for pushing for the ban but told reporters that it “was hard to believe Davidson County is going to tell the state what they can do on the House floor.”

His lawyers unsuccessfully argued this point in court.

House and Senate Republicans disagreement

After the rules, attention quickly shifted to the brewing fight between Senate and House Republicans. The upper chamber gaveled committees within minutes, passing only four bills and ready to go after less than a week.

The divide among GOP on Capitol Hill has generally been between the legislative and executive branches.

The Lee administration and House and Senate leaders were on the brink of a significant fight in April 2022 over “truth in sentencing” legislation, which rolled back much of the governor’s criminal justice reform agenda. Lee’s office backed down at the last minute, boosting the House and Senate’s confidence as the dominant government branch.

Before Lee called the special session, the House and Senate flexed this power, floating the idea the session shouldn’t happen, with most reasonably confident an ERPO would fail to make it out of a committee.

To appease the House, Lee allowed lawmakers to discuss a wide range of juvenile justice and mental health changes as part of the special session.

Sexton used the opportunity to sponsor bills allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried as adults for certain offenses mainly involving guns and a blended sentencing bill that would force courts to move juveniles to adult prisons in some instances.

Those against the legislation worried Sexton was using the time crunch of a special session to move through bills that wouldn’t otherwise have survived during a regular legislative session.

(Screenshot of the now-deleted tweet from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus account.)
(Screenshot of the now-deleted tweet from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus account.)

But as Sexton’s and dozen of other bills unrelated to guns moved through the House, it became clear the Senate was uninterested, frustrating House GOP members like caucus chair Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, who mocked the Senate Republicans on Twitter with an ostrich egg to symbolize what he perceived as a lack of work.

The plan was clear by mid-week: the House would pretend the Senate didn’t exist and move forward with 37 bills.

This meant the brunt of protests occurred on the House side, as the frustration from many of the groups in attendance boiled over at members like Reps. Gino Bulso, R-Franklin, and Chris Todd, R-Madison County.

Audience members hissed every time Bulso spoke; while Todd enraged Covenant groups when he told them the shooter would have run over their kids with a car if they hadn’t had access to a gun.

House leaders put their bills on the floor facing long debates from Democrats and often anger crowds inside and outside the chamber.

Sexton said he wanted the Senate to reopen committees to discuss their legislation, but the upper chamber did not budge.

Finally, after a meeting with Lee, the two chambers agreed to adjourn, but not before chaos broke out in the House.

House Republicans tried all week to act like the adults in the room, but the last image of the session was shouting and shoving between Sexton, Lamberth, Jones, Pearson and various other members.