Ben Nelson ‘Politics’ Not Welcome in Tennessee

It is a good thing to try to put a stop to politicians “selling” their vote for something they otherwise wouldn’t support in exchange for a benefit for their constituents that sticks it to everyone. That some don’t think so shows how far American politics has sunk.

America got a close-up look at the ugly underbelly of Washington politics when U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska), in exchange for his vote, got his state exempted from the unfunded Medicaid mandate under the federal health care bill. Getting a monetary break for his state suddenly made a bad bill “good.” America was rightly outraged by this act of “political bribery.” Well, something more than Norris Dam is getting ready to be named for a Nebraska Senator, and maybe it will keep Washington politics out of Tennessee.

Last week state Sens. Dewayne Bunch ((R-Cleveland) and Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Reps. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) and Glen Casada (R-College Grove) filed Senate Bill 3160 and House Bill 3123 to protect the taxpayers of Tennessee from the kind of “political bribery” we all witnessed when some of our nation’s U.S. Senators “sold” their votes on national health care for deals that benefit their constituents while sticking it to the wallets of all other taxpayers.

This bill is intended to make sure this kind of horse-trading for the benefit of some taxpayers at the expense others doesn’t make its way into Tennessee. (I’m not saying it has happened in Tennessee, but there has never been any reason to pursue suspicions either.) The bill deals with basically two different scenarios. The bill would make it a Class A misdemeanor for an official to vote for a bill in exchange for future employment. It would also make it a crime for a legislator to vote for a bill only if that legislator receives for only for his or her district a fiscal or budgetary benefit that citizens of all other districts in the state would not get but would have to pay for through their taxes.

Bribery by Any Other Name

The essence of bribery is offering some reward or favor for the purpose of perverting the judgment of an elected official. In the past, we only thought of bribery in terms of some favor or reward going to the elected official personally, but it doesn’t matter whether it is an individual’s money that perverts an official’s judgment or that of taxpayers. The bottom line is that the legislator’s better judgment has been altered by a financial consideration that is not in the best interest of the whole body politic.

The filing of the bill has been news around the country (though not so much so in our own state, which is part of why FACT exists—to tell you things others think unimportant). When the Omaha World Herald found out about the bill last Friday, they called Rep. Dunn, and he echoed the same sentiment,

Sen. Nelson, even though he realized this could ruin the finances of states, he went ahead and voted for it as long as he protected his state. So he voted for what he knew was bad policy, just because he got favoritism.

Other Senators, of course, did similar things, but fortunately for them they didn’t receive the same notoriety because their vote was not the deciding one.

If the Average Guy Gets It, Why Can’t Everyone Else?

Partly because Sen. Nelson’s conduct isn’t that unusual, some of the politicos across the country laughed at the idea. One was Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia, who said, “We don’t have enough prison space in the country to house all the congressmen and state legislators who would have to be incarcerated. Obviously it’s ridiculous. You don’t criminalize politics.”

Actually, liberals and clueless politicians, for example those like Martha Coakley of Massachusetts, don’t understand that a lot of average Americans do think politics itself has become “criminal,” particularly in Washington, where Republicans in 12 years “earmarked” us to the edge of oblivion and Democrats in the last two years shoved us over the edge. If it takes more politicians going to jail to get our governmental policies decided on the merits, then there may just be a growing population ready to say, “Then spend some money to build more prisons … and make sure they serve TEA with every meal.”

That some would see this bill as ridiculous shows just how jaded and out of touch some of those in politics have become. Some can’t even recognize that Justice has had her blindfold off for a long time now and has been wearing dark-shaded glasses with a brimmed hat pulled down over her head. Some have been in the “dark” for so long they don’t know what “light” looks like.

But some do. The average guy does. And I’m sure that’s who these sponsors are counting on to make a statement in Tennessee, one that I hope will be heard around the country. In fact, Rep. Dunn got this e-mail last Friday from a man in Nebraska who read the article in his state’s newspaper:

As a Nebraskan, I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for naming your wonderful ethics bill after Senator Ben Nelson. I have been troubled by this individual ever since he steered millions of our tax dollars over to a company his son worked for and chose not to reveal the family connection.

I can tell you that Ben Nelson does not represent the wonderful people of Nebraska who possess some of the finest ethics in the country. As a result of his shameless vote in the Senate, Nelson is now despised in this state.

Please keep up the good work, Mr. Dunn. You, sir, are a great American.

I concur. Thank you, Jack Johnson, Dewayne Bunch, Bill Dunn and Glen Casada, for being willing to take the scorn from those who have come to accept “politics as usual.”

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

While some legislators seem so aligned with the Tennessee Education Association that they never seem to question the Association’s position, the Senate Education Committee is giving a regular voice to other teachers for the first time in history.

Last week we reported on how some legislators seem to walk lockstep with certain special interests, but state Senate Republicans are bringing some much-needed change to a key committee.

As we mentioned, the Tennessee Education Association has held a firm grip on the Tennessee General Assembly over the years. But they are not and have not been the only organization in Tennessee representing teachers. The Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) has been around a number of years, but because it is conservative in its views, it has never been “invited to the table,” so to speak.

In fact, it has even been a bit harder than necessary for PET even to let teachers know of its existence. No doubt, to help the TEA maintain its firm grip in the state, years ago a state law was enacted that only allows the contracting teachers union to have access to teachers’ mailboxes at school. So, PET doesn’t have the ability to communicate with teachers through the cost-effective means of putting a notice in a teacher’s mailbox at school. No, they have to come up with the names of teachers and, generally speaking, have to use regular mail that is expensive compared to free.

Finally, Both Sides Getting Equal Time

But since Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) took over the chair of the Senate Education Committee, PET may have become more the “go to” organization, at least to the extent possible. For perhaps the first time in memory, PET has actually testified in Senate Education Committee meetings. During the just completed special session on education, PET got equal time with the TEA to state its position on the various issues affecting education and teachers.

It’s about time that PET is given a voice, and perhaps its higher profile will make more teachers, not aligned with the TEA’s politics, aware of an alternative. And the state and its citizens will be better served if we hear what are often two different views on education issues from a teacher’s perspective.

Will Last Tuesday’s Election Really Matter?

The election of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts shows that citizens can buck the political establishment. Now the question is will those who don’t like the direction of things in Tennessee get engaged, and will our state’s politicians do a better job of listening?

There were two big political earthquakes in the United States last week. And they both have huge implications going into the 2010 election cycle. But the election of Scott Brown may not make much difference if citizens and politicians don’t learn from it the most fundamental lesson.

Everyone knows about the election of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by the late Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. But most of what I have seen in terms of critiquing the election has had to do with evaluating what role President Obama, national health care, etc. had to do with his victory. To be honest, there can be as many reasons for why he won as there were voters. And it may not have been any one issue. But the one thing I think we can all draw from the election is that if enough people get tired of the way things are going politically, they can make a difference.

The election of Scott Brown demonstrates that a relatively unknown state Senator can buck the entrenched political machinery of his state if enough people will join forces. My point in this isn’t partisan. Either party can be entrenched, whether it’s at the state level or the local level. Both parties can take voters and their base for granted. And either party can find themselves on the wrong end of the vote tally if they do so long enough.

That said, there were many in conservative political circles, particularly those who value America’s Judeo-Christian moorings, who became despondent and discouraged after the 2008 elections. And for those of that political bent, there has sure been a steady stream of bad stuff coming out of Washington in the last year.

But instead of wringing our hands, we need to put our hands to the plow and not look back. We need to put our hands to work. And we need to join hands. If enough of us do so, we can make a difference. And Massachusetts is Exhibit A for what can happen when enough people say “enough.”

If you are reading this, then you have taken a good first step toward being informed and finding a way to let your voice be heard. But how about helping us join hands with your friends and neighbors who may still be out there wringing their hands? Take your first step in the new year toward making a difference by forwarding this email to them and asking them to join us.

We can make a difference, but that difference won’t come about simply because we want it to. It will come about when we are willing to do something about it, even if it’s as simple as emailing a friend to ask them to join us or faithfully emailing our representatives with our views and opinions. After last Tuesday, the smart politicians should be hearing a little bit better than before.

If we don’t do anything any differently, then we can’t expect anything different to happen. In November 2010, we will find out if what happened last Tuesday really mattered here in Tennessee.

The People v. Senate Education Committee

Far too often the entrenched political machinery of the Tennessee Education Association teachers’ union is given more clout and more voice by some legislators than is given to the parents with children in the worst schools.

The Scott Brown election saw the people of Massachusetts speak loud and clear when it came to not allowing the entrenched political machinery in their state speak for them. Perhaps Washington politicians will “hear” and give more regard to the people who elect them. But it seems that message didn’t trickle down to everyone in Tennessee state government last week.

In Massachusetts, the Democrats have dominated the political landscape for years. They have no Republican members in their delegation to the U.S. House. They have had no Republican U.S. Senator since 1972. Yet that part of the political machinery in Massachusetts that had been “in charge” for so long could not “control” the people this time.

Another part of the political machinery had been the unions. They came out strongly for Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, but there sure were a lot of pictures of rank and file union members in union T-shirts campaigning for her opponent, Scott Brown.

The message of Scott Brown that seemed to resonate with the people was, “This is not Ted Kennedy’s seat; it is your (the people’s) seat.” And for at least this one election, the people took their seat back from what we might say were the entrenched political players in their state.

Tennessee’s Own Problem with Entrenched Unions

One political player in Tennessee that has been entrenched for almost forever is the Tennessee Education Association (TEA). From their position of power they have even gotten the Legislature to make specific reference to their specific union in state law, ignoring the fact that there is another teacher representative organization in Tennessee. In fact, the Legislature has given the Tennessee Education Association some legal advantages over an alternative teacher organization that helps make sure that other organization can’t grow as easily.

In view of this, at least some on the Hill believe that the Tennessee Education Association would be better named the Tennessee Teachers Association, as it sometimes seems more interested in protecting the current educational system for the benefit of teachers than it is about improving education itself.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Teachers are certainly entitled to have an organization looking out for their professional interests just like any other group that wants to have their interests looked out for in the state.

And you can’t really fault the TEA for the clout they have in Nashville. They only have the clout that legislators give them. But here’s the thing: Legislators only have the clout we let them have. Last week saw a visible demonstration of people vs. the “system.”

Thanks, but No Thanks

It began when newly seated Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Shelby County) sponsored a bill to start an “opportunity scholarship program” for students in the 10 worst performing schools in Memphis. Memphis has the most number of low performing schools of any school system in Tennessee. And most of those schools are in urban areas and serve low income families who cannot afford private schools or housing in more “upscale” neighborhoods that might have a better school. The bill would have allowed students in those schools who are from lower income families to take the money the state is sending to Memphis to educate that student and use it to attend another private or public school.

Sen. Kelsey’s bill was heard on Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee, and I was asked to speak on its behalf. As I spoke to the committee about the merits of giving a measure of educational freedom and opportunity to parents who, because of their economic situation, had children trapped in one of the 10 worst schools in the city, I could see and feel a sense of “dead on arrival.”

Now, the bill was not dead because there were some things that needed to be fixed or needed to be clarified. No, it was dead because a majority of the committee members present simply was not interested in getting answers to TEA’s objections or fixing their concerns or offering amendments to clarify any ambiguities. In fact, Sen. Kelsey offered an amendment to reduce the number of students who would be eligible to just those in the three worst schools. Even that amendment couldn’t garner a majority of the votes. Ultimately, by a begrudging one-vote majority, the Senate Education Committee approved an amendment allowing the parents of students at the one worst school to have some choice in their child’s education. And as amended down to just one school, the bill was sent to the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration.

Committee members were given information about studies by the Friedman Foundation showing that not one of the 17 empirical studies done on such programs in other states had found that those programs had hurt public education. In fact, they were told that 16 studies showed the programs had a positive impact on public education, and one study found that the program had no effect on public education. Yet there was no interest among those who did not vote for the bill in learning more about the issues or exploring how the proposed program might work.

In fact, in opposing the bill, one Senator said that her children had gotten a good education through the public schools in Memphis, as if her experience meant that parents with students stuck in the worst schools would have the same happy outcome. The fact is those students are not having the same happy outcome—that’s why they are the worst schools. Unless my logic is wrong, “worst schools” doesn’t equal “best schools.” The existence of one or more good schools in a school system doesn’t mean all the schools in the system are good or that children in the worst schools shouldn’t be given the same opportunity as other students to go to a good school. But that kind of logic too often prevails when citizens don’t know what is going on and can’t challenge it.

More Clout Given to Teachers Than to Parents?

My point is that far too often the entrenched political machinery of the Tennessee Education Association is given more clout and more voice by some legislators than is given to the parents with children in the worst schools. But the union has a PAC which gives money to and makes endorsements of legislators, while the parents of children in these schools … well, I doubt they even knew that some legislators, including ones from Memphis, were deciding for them that their children didn’t deserve a better chance for an education.

But maybe some day, like in Massachusetts, enough parents will get the information they need to let their voice be heard over the powers that be and will say “Enough … you represent us, ‘the people.’ ”

A Pastor’s Perspective: Why God Is Pro-Life

Life is a precious gift from God, and the taking of an innocent life, whether in the womb or born alive, is murder against which the Church must take a stand, both to defend life and offer grace to those who have been scarred by it.

This month marks the 37th anniversary of a day that will live in infamy just as the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is also a date that will live in infamy. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Roe v. Wade, made it legal for our nation to murder its own children by what doctors call an abortion. Here is at least one pastor’s perspective on the issue.

Since 1973, some 50 million lives have been snuffed out, without legal representation, without evidence of any guilt, without the opportunity to even speak in their own defense. Imagine a disaster where the entire populations of California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington are wiped out; that is 50 million lives! Abortion is the American holocaust, and it is a moral outrage that ought to make every Christian in this nation rise up in righteous indignation. But for some reason abortion has become a politicized issue, polarizing Democrats and Republicans. For people of faith, abortion should not be a political issue at all.

The Old Testament records God’s message in Deuteronomy 30:19:

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.

Abortion is really not a political issue; it is a moral issue. Christians can be both Democrats and Republicans, because following Christ has nothing to do with a political party. God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican; but God is pro-life, and followers of Christ, both Democrats and Republicans, ought also to be pro-life!

I. God Creates and Values Life

As Christians, we claim to accept the Bible as the inerrant (or perfect) word of God and therefore the final authority on all subjects that it addresses. Of course, the Bible doesn’t address all topics, but where the Bible does speak clearly on an issue, we, as followers of Christ, must take that as the ultimate authority.

A. Unborn Human Life in the Old Testament: Psalm 139:13-16 says:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

These verses tell us that God creates life in the mother’s womb, and that the unborn child is the object of God’s love and concern. Look at the pronouns in these verses: I, me, my, etc. This is not an “it,” a “thing,” or a blob of tissue that can be removed from the woman’s body like a tumor. Look at Jeremiah 1:5. Jeremiah was a prophet, and God told him: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you (or set you apart).” God doesn’t consecrate a growth or a blob of tissue to become a prophet; He consecrates a person.

B. Unborn Human Life in the New Testament: In Luke’s Gospel, chapter one, we read that Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, went to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. Listen to verse 41: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” When an unborn baby kicks in the womb, you never hear the expectant mother say: “A blob of tissue leaped inside me” or “Gee! I think my fetal tissue just kicked me.” No, she says her baby kicked her. In fact, the Greek word brephos is used when it says that the baby leaped in her womb. That word can be translated, “an unborn child, embryo, fetus, a new born child, an infant, a babe.” It is the same term that is used to describe Jesus, the “babe” wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12, 16). In other words, there is no distinction made in the Greek New Testament between an unborn baby and a newborn child. An unborn child is therefore not an “it,” or a pre-human; in God’s eyes, an unborn child is a baby.

Some say that is just a fetus, meaning that this tissue is not a human being. Actually, the word fetus is merely the Latin word for unborn child. The fetal stage is merely one stage in a person’s life, as is the teenage stage, the young adult stage, etc.

Well, what happens in an abortion? I think most Americans do not know the truth, and I think that ignorance explains why so many American Christians continue to vote for pro-choice politicians. Because of the invention of sonograms, you can actually watch an abortion, almost like watching a television program. Some abortion doctors inject the womb with a saline solution that literally burns the baby alive. Other abortion doctors use a vacuum device that dismembers (cuts off the arms and legs of) the struggling child and sucks the lifeless body out of the womb. Others simply use forceps which, based on the sonograms, the baby fights to avoid. They rip off the limbs, crush the baby’s head, pull it out of the womb, and throw it in the trash; literally!

Thank God that Congress has at least outlawed partial-birth abortion, a procedure by which a living, full-term baby is delivered breech (or feet first) up the point of the head, and then a sharp instrument is stabbed into the base of the baby’s skull, and the brains are removed so that the skull can be collapsed and the baby removed. Unfortunately the other methods of abortion, which are no less inhumane and grisly, have not. I mean, we would expect this kind of gross brutality in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, not the hospitals, doctor’s offices and health clinics of America. Yet this barbaric destruction of life goes on daily in the state of Tennessee.

II. The Church Must Defend Innocent Life and Offer Grace

Unborn human life must be protected by all Americans, but particularly by Christ-followers. Proverbs 24:11-12 says:

Rescue those being led away to death, hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say: “We knew nothing about this,” Does not He who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not He who guards your life know it? Will He not repay each person according to what he has done?

As Christians we need to stand up and speak out because abortion is morally wrong! It is premeditated murder! It violates the Sixth Commandment in Exodus 20:13: “You shall not murder,” and if Christians don’t stop it, who will? That’s why I’m writing on this today.

God is pro-life, and according to the plain language of Proverbs 6:16-17, He hates abortion: “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven are an abomination to Him,” among those are, “hands that shed innocent blood.” God hates the shedding of innocent blood! And His ears are filled with the cries of the innocent being slain in this nation, and, friend, there will be a day of reckoning!

Many churches will not address this issue from the pulpit for fear of offending or being accused of using the pulpit for politics. Saving human life is not a political issue. It is a moral issue. The people who sit in the pews every Sunday need the truth. But if we pastors will speak of the issue in a redemptive way that also extends grace to those who have been ensnared and wounded by the lie that abortion is just a “choice,” then we can leave the outcome of our speaking to God. Christ is both grace and truth. And abortion calls for us to speak both into our culture.

I believe God is calling out to his Church, the hands and feet of Christ, to get involved, save lives, and stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves! As a pastor, I pray we will respond.