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New Tennessee House rules seek to discourage more uproar after highly publicized expulsions

The Republican-run Tennessee House has capped how long lawmakers can debate bills and is restricting members from speaking when deemed “out of order.”

Jonathan Mattise
Wednesday 10 January 2024 22:58 GMT

The Republican-run Tennessee House on Wednesday installed new rules limiting how long lawmakers can debate bills and restricting members deemed “out of order” from speaking — an effort to discourage further turmoil after the highly publicized expulsions of two Democrats last year.

The wide-ranging set of rule changes was opposed by many Democrats, including the “Tennessee Three”: Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Rep. Justin Jones from Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis, who waged a protest on the House floor last April calling for gun control just days after a Christian elementary school shooting in Nashville killed six people.

After the protest, Johnson was spared from expulsion by a single vote, while Jones and Pearson were kicked out, quickly reappointed by local officials and then reelected.

The rules approved Wednesday differed somewhat from those temporarily passed for a special legislative session in August called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee in response to The Covenant School shooting. Notably, Republican lawmakers did not reinstate a prohibition on the public holding small signs during committee hearings and floor sessions — a ban a Tennessee judge had blocked.

The rule changes come as the Republican House supermajority is receiving criticism for further limiting access to the public galleries and restricting which news outlets can access the floor.

Under the new rules, each lawmaker will generally have five minutes of discussion per each bill, resolution or motion, and the House speaker can set an overall time limit split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Additionally, lawmakers will have five minutes to explain their bills in committees, though responding to questions won't count.

Democrats argued the time caps would unnecessarily constrain debates, especially on complex proposals.

“What we do here impacts people’s lives," said Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat. "And we need to make sure that we get it right and take the time to get it right.”

Republicans, meanwhile, said a cap would ensure equal speaking time for both sides. Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville referenced a list compiled by the House clerk's office showing that the several lawmakers who spoke the most in debates during the last regular session were Democrats.

In response, Democrats noted that Republicans have frequently asked to end debates and proceed to the vote, including on contentious bills. Those motions are still allowed under the new rules. Additionally, some Democrats said they were proud to have spoken so often about important issues.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth said he hopes the motions to stop debate won't be used much now.

“I would ask for both caucuses to resist that impulse if we are under a rule that allows for equal time on both sides,” said Lamberth, a Portland Republican.

Lamberth also said the rule changes introduce “intermediary steps” short of expulsion or censure. The new rule would strictly limit lawmakers from speaking on the floor if they are ruled out of order — for instance, if the House speaker declares they have veered too far off topic on a bill.

If the House votes someone out of order once, the lawmaker won’t be allowed to continue their current comments. If it occurs twice in a day, the lawmaker’s time to debate will be reduced from five to two minutes for that day and the next legislative day. A third out-of-order vote during that time frame will block the lawmaker from speaking on the floor through the next legislative day.

“That's what these rules are designed to do, is to effectively promote the democracy that's debated in this House,” said Republican Rep. Johnny Garrett of Goodlettsville.

One of the Democrats expelled last year, Jones, said during Wednesday's debate that House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville was “drunk with power” in changing the rules. Jones was voted out of order and temporarily quieted before the vote on the new rules.

“These rules are targeting anyone who dissents,” Jones told reporters after the vote.

Jones has sued over his expulsion and a temporary special session House rule that Republicans applied to silence Jones for part of one day in August.

Republican leaders also approved other rules changing how lawmakers can ask parliamentary and procedural questions, which some Democrats, including Jones and Pearson, have increasingly posed on the floor about a variety of topics. They now would need to ask them through their party's floor leader. The rules also let the speaker call on lawmakers in whatever order he chooses, rather than based on who asked to speak first.

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