High 4: How Things Have Changed

The Tennessee Senate in 1889
PHOTO: TN State Library and Archives


We’re going to slip in a history lesson about how the relationship between the governor and the legislature has changed over the years.

Before the 1960s the governor of Tennessee was more powerful than he is today. The house and senate met only once every two years and generally rubber-stamped the governor’s proposals.

If a state representative or state senator wanted to pass any bill, no matter how minor, he or she had to convince the governor it was a good idea. If the governor agreed, the bill would pass. If the governor didn’t like the idea, it would probably fail.

The Tennessee House in 1939
PHOTO: TN State Library and Archives

State legislators also had no offices and no staffs (and there were no cellular phones back then). Once a state representative or senator got to Nashville, there wasn’t really a place for him to work, other than his desk in the house or senate chamber and his hotel room. If he did want to write a complicated bill, there was no legislative staff to help him draft such a bill. He had to either find a Nashville lawyer to help him, or ask the governor’s staff for help.

Perhaps the best example of just how powerful the governor was is the following anecdote: In 1946 a U.S. Army veteran named George Oliver Benton was elected to the state senate. Between his election and his swearing-in ceremony, he received a call from the office of Tennessee Governor Jim McCord. “Would you like to be the Speaker of the Senate?” the gubernatorial aide asked. “Sure I would,” Benton said.

George Oliver Benton

A few weeks later Benton was elected by his fellow senators to be Speaker of the Senate (a position synonymous with Lieutenant Governor in Tennessee). He eventually learned that Governor McCord chose him to be Speaker of the Senate because Benton was a political rookie and knew almost nothing about the process; the governor didn’t want to have to deal with a powerful Speaker of the Senate.

In 1961, Elvis Presley visited the Tennessee State House!

McCord, who had not gone to World War II, was also nervous about the potential power of all the returning veterans. With a veteran and political neophyte as Speaker of the Senate, McCord could run the legislature and address the veteran problem in one stroke. And, by the way, when Governor McCord told the other members of the state senate to vote for Benton, they did just that.

(By the way, the source of this anecdote was Benton himself, who later became a lobbyist and who died in 2001.)

The Tennessee State House in session

Through a series of events, things changed tremendously in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

By 1975 the Tennessee General Assembly had broken away from the governor’s control and had begun making independent decisions about what bills to pass and who to elect to the positions of house and senate speaker.  A major part of this process was the construction of a new (underground) legislative office building, now known as Legislative Plaza.

In the 1970s, with the construction of Legislative Plaza and the conversion of the War Memorial Building next door into legislative use, the Tennessee General Assembly had, for the first time, offices for every member and committee rooms in which to meet. Prior to that time, legislative committees often met in Nashville hotels.

The Tennessee Senate

Here are some of the other changes at the legislature in recent years:

  • * A dramatic increase in the number of African-American lawmakers because of the Voting Rights Act of 1964

* A shift from Democratic Party domination of the state to Republican domination. In 1994, Tennessee had a Democratic governor, two Democratic U.S. Senators, and both parties of its General Assembly controlled by Democrats. Today, the state has a Republican governor, two Republican U.S. Senators and both parties of its General Assembly controlled by Republicans.

* A shift in power from rural to urban areas largely because of the Baker v. Carr lawsuit (more on that later)

* An increase in legislative pay

* Annual meetings of the General Assembly, instead of meeting once every two years

Senator Ed Jackson (second from the left) and Rep. Karen Camper (on the right) along with two friends: Cato Johnson (on the far left) and Frank Lawrence)

* Finally, in 2018, the offices and committees the General Assembly and all of its members was moved from Legislative Plaza and the War Memorial Building to the Cordell Hull Building, about two blocks away.

Today, the Tennessee governor is still a powerful person. The budget the governor submits in January of every year, for instance, still passes much the way he submitted it. On those occasions when the governor vetoes a bill, the legislature rarely chooses to override it — even though it only takes a simple majority to override a veto in Tennessee.

In fact, a few years ago, when the legislature voted to override a veto by Governor Don Sundquist, no one could remember the last time the legislature had done it.

But today, unlike the old days, individual legislators have the power to propose and pass bills that the governor doesn’t necessarily agree with. Unlike the old days, each lawmaker has his or her own office, a phone, and people to help write bills.

And, unlike the old days, the legislature meets every year, instead of every other year.

Before we leave the legislature, we need to mention the Constitutional officers. Click here.