Getting Back to Basics: Increasing Checks and Balances at All Levels of Government
BY RON SHULTIS
Whatever the arena, good coaches know the importance of mastering the basics. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was known to teach players at the beginning of each season how to properly put on their socks. His rationale was if a player didn’t put on socks correctly, blisters could develop. With blisters, a player couldn’t run as long or as fast, which put the Bruins at a disadvantage. After losing the 1960 NFL Championship to the Eagles, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi didn’t take anything for granted. On the first day of practice the following year, he said to his locker room “Gentlemen, this is a football.” While his team was initially perplexed as to why he was explaining something so obvious, the message eventually became clear: fundamentals first. The Packers would eventually go on to win the 1961 NFL Championship, Lombardi’s first of five. (Humble Packer-fan brag.)
For the government, nothing is more fundamental than strong checks and balances. In fact, outside of School House Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” song, there is likely no other feature of American government better known than the concept of checks and balances. While most think of the federal government with the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court, checks and balances work at all levels and in all situations.
Sometimes we need moments to remind ourselves of those fundamentals and where they’re lacking. For Tennessee legislators, that moment was the COVID-19 pandemic. This session, Tennessee lawmakers have introduced multiple bills that seek to strengthen checks and balances at all levels of government in Tennessee. One proposal being considered would give school board members elected by their local communities or the governor the authority to open or close schools during an emergency. Currently, that decision is made by a superintendent, who does not directly answer to voters or the families the school serves. Enacting this reform gives parents the opportunity to have the voices directly heard.
Another current proposal seeks to provide more oversight to independent local health boards. Currently, an independent local health board made up of unelected appointees can issue an order without the approval of the elected county mayor or commission. These orders have criminal penalties, which means that in effect, an unelected body can create crimes with no oversight. During the pandemic, we’ve seen health orders change constantly, making it nearly impossible for citizens and businesses to comply. The bill being considered would require those health orders to be approved by the county mayor before going into effect, similar to any executive order issued by the governor or the president.
Lastly, after a task force convened to study emergency power reform during the fall, legislators have proposed a measure that reforms the governor’s emergency powers. Currently, there are virtually no limitations to the governor’s powers in calling an emergency. In fact, a recent report by the Maine Policy Institute shows that Tennessee has some of the fewest checks and balances on emergency executive powers in the country. While Beacon has commended Governor Lee for his general deregulatory approach, Beacon has provided guidance on potential reforms, calling for emergency powers to be limited and specific and subject to legislative oversight. The task force’s proposal would allow the legislature to vote to end a governor’s statewide emergency declaration, providing a necessary and crucial check on potential abuses.
In a perfect world, it wouldn’t take a heartbreaking defeat, a stunning upset, or—in this case—a pandemic, to remind us of the value of fundamentals. These moments, however, occur when flaws in a team or system are exposed, allowing corrections to take place. Our state’s leaders should be commended for recognizing these flaws because good coaches (or legislators) know that you have to enact these changes to reach the championship.