State Rep. Judd Matheny has plans for a small group of fellow House legislators to start dissecting federal laws that affect Tennessee and analyzing them to determine whether they adhere to a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
Speaking to members of the strongly conservative Tennessee Republican Assembly last month, Matheny, who chairs the state House Government Operations Committee, said that even with a GOP supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly, more work remains to be done to ensure that the Volunteer state “protects the rights and privileges of citizens,” from what he sees as federal overreaching.
The seven-term lawmaker and former speaker pro tem told the TRA that he is in the beginning stages of setting up a new House subcommittee to vet federal laws and policies that affect Tennessee and opine on their constitutionality.
The so-called Balance of Powers Subcommittee, Matheny said, came out of a failed bill with the same name from the 2013 session that he carried with state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. The legislation would have given the assembly the statutory responsibility of similarly vetting federal rules.
Matheny explained that if lawmakers approached the committee with a specific state/federal issue, the committee would “rip it apart, tear it apart; we’re going to decide is it constitutional, does it violate our state’s rights.”
“And if we believe that it does,” Matheny continued, “we’re going to issue a report to both speakers, we’re going to issue a report to every member of the General Assembly.”
The Tullahoma Republican spoke candidly about how he sees the ideological breakdown amongst his Republican House colleagues, including those he thinks would be sympathetic to his ideas and those who aren’t conservative enough for his tastes.
Last year Matheny publicly mulled over the idea of challenging Nashville Republican Beth Harwell for the House speakership, but later backed off the bid. Matheny himself then lost the pro tem post in a challenge from Curtis Johnson, a Republican from Clarksville.
“Some of our most conservative people are in the dark and we are trying to emerge from that,” Matheny told the TRA crowd on April 20. “We have probably 25 to 28 of our 70 members who are like us, they being in this room. We have another 20 or so — 25 — that can go either way based on the merits of the arguments or how convincing we can be. And then we have another 20 or 22 that need to go.”
But beyond obliquely calling for primary challenges to more moderate members of his own caucus, Matheny hopes to further his conservative agenda by setting his sights on policies from Washington.
The Balance of Powers Subcommittee has only had one organizational meeting so far and hasn’t looked at any specific issues, but Matheny told TNReport last week, “We’re going to look at executive orders, we’re going to look at mandates, we’re going to look at legislation.”
Pressed for specifics, Matheny said “I’m not sure if these are going to be on the calendar or not, but an example would be the Common Core standards, educational standards that the state is adopting…those are a potential. Executive orders on gun control have been another example that have been brought forward.”
Yet even while Matheny described his new committee to TRA members as “revolutionary” and the first of its kind in the country, it remains unclear how effective it will be.
“We’re not going to do actions that are binding, we’re not going to amend bills,” Matheny told TNReport.
With only enough power to offer recommendations, any substantive actions to address federal policies still rests with General Assembly leadership and the body as a whole, including a Democratic superminority and more liberal Republican legislators.