Tea Party protesters who converged on the Tennessee State Capitol to pour out some outrage against the federal health care package signed into law this week got an unwanted douse of legislative reality today.
A bill to direct the Tennessee Attorney General to defend state citizens against federal efforts to punish or prosecute them for failing to purchase or enroll in health insurance programs as mandated by the federal government was tabled for a week in a House subcommittee.
The “Tennessee Health Freedom Act,” which passed in the Senate last month on a 26-1 vote, is designed to protect Tennesseans from, in the words of Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, a “massive (federal) power grab that will reduce individual liberty and strangle state government finances.”
Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, the chief sponsor of the House version of the act, told members of the Industrial Impact subcommittee Tuesday that the bill’s “intention is to be a tool to protect Tennesseans who do not want to participate in the new federal program.”
“This is an unprecedented move by the federal government to mandate that individuals purchase a product,” said Bell. “We’re not talking about another Medicare program, where people pay a dedicated tax to support a program. But what the federal bill does is mandate the purchase of a product.”
“This has never been done in the history of our country,” he said.
Anti-ObamaCare protesters who packed the hearing room and the hallway outside greeted Bell’s introduction of the bill in the subcommittee with jubilant cheers.
Their mood soured when a short time later Bell announced he was attaching a “severability clause” amendment to the bill — declaring that if any or all the parts of the act are declared unconstitutional by a court, then that part would be automatically removed from law.
Bell said he decided to offer the amendment after earlier talks “with several members of the committee who were concerned about the possible constitutionality” of the act. That amendment quickly passed without opposition.
However, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, subsequently declared that in keeping with traditional practices of the Industrial Impact subcommittee, he would delay a vote on the actual proposal.
“This is not a rule that we just started,” explained Curtiss. “Because, historically, we deal with so much insurance legislation and everything, when we amend a bill of any significance…we roll it for one week. It’s just a formality, and we’re going to roll this bill and it will layover for one week, and then we’ll be voting on it next week.”
Upon that announcement, the protesters’ excitement turned to groans of impatience and disappointment.
Many of the 75 or so demonstrators said they’d taken time off work or traveled considerable distances across the state to express themselves and witness a definitive, defiant first response from lawmakers in the wake of adoption of the federal health care legislation.
Bell and other bill supporters on the committee assured them the move was altogether proper and normal.
In fact, the amendment, as suggested by Bell, may help ensure the act’s ultimate passage in the House, predicted Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, who is a co-sponsor of the legislation.
The subcommittee is made up of six Democrats and six Republicans with a Democrat in the chairman seat, so it likely needs bipartisan support to move, which the amendment will help ensure, he said.
A separate bill sponsored by Rep. Susan Lynn, Mt. Juliet (pdf), seeks to amend the Tennessee Constitution to prohibit government from compelling “directly or indirectly, any person, employer or health care provider to participate in any health care system.”
That bill was also tabled Tuesday and is awaiting an attorney general’s opinion.
Mark Todd Engler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrea Zelinski contributed to this story. She can be reached at email@example.com.