Tennessee State Capitol Visit Reflection #3
Written by Vanderbilt senior Neuroscience major Margot Debrabandere
As my classmates and I walked into the Tennessee State Capitol last Wednesday alongside younger students from a local school, we could not help but joke that we were on an adult field trip. Nonetheless, this was definitely the most insightful and rewarding field trip I have ever been on. The day allowed us to gain a true feel for and understanding of what the life of a politician, lobbyist and intern must be like in Tennessee.
The overall atmosphere at the State Capitol was not what I had expected. Lobbyists, interest groups and various organizations lined the halls with posters, snacks and souvenirs to advocate for causes they were passionate about, such as the prescription drug crisis. However, the nicely dressed politicians seemed too busy for this, and were constantly walking in and out of meetings or conversing with their fellow representatives, despite the obvious chaos around them.
Most of the meetings began by asking a legislator about the current state of healthcare in Tennessee, and what he/she believed to be the most viable solutions for the various concerns. My first meeting was with Republican Representative Eddie Smith, who briefly discussed his support of block grants of federal funds in order to better tailor the health needs of the Tennessee population through TennCare. Not surprisingly, the Democratic Senator Jeff Yarbro was quick to show his disapproval for block grants, yet thought that the Republican idea of Health Savings Accounts could have potential. His various democratic views, such as expansion of Medicaid, coverage for those with preexisting conditions and the continuation of coverage for a child until 26 years of age under their parents’ plan, were certainly voiced. Sen. Yarbro also took the time to expose the reality of how the Tennessee State Capitol functions. He explained that while part-time legislation has its benefits, such as providing him the ability to work as a lawyer for the remainder of the year and immerse himself into the local community, it also fails to provide enough time to gather data and other statistical measures. Not having the resources that a full-time legislature has causes senators to follow their personal agendas more closely, rather than address the present needs of the citizens. Furthermore, I was surprised by his discussion of the media’s impact on the outcomes of the state elections in recent years. The results align more closely with those at the national level, showing that partisanship is increasingly present across the states. I appreciated that Sen. Yarbro talked honesty about the struggle currently facing Tennessee, as well as his emphasis on the seriousness of the Trump transition and its current paralyzing impact on policy development across states. Republicans and Democrats alike must wait and prepare for what is to come.
While Republican Senator Becky Massey also discussed the current ‘waiting game’ in the State Capitol, she also talked about interesting issues relating to the importance of allowing nurse practitioners to prescribe drugs in rural areas. Representative Johnnie Turner, however, provided the most impactful interaction of all of the politicians I met that day. Her story was truly inspirational, from her attendance of speeches made by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to her recollections of her struggles during childhood and college with racism. It was clear how these events influenced her anti-discrimination and her strong support for the rights of all people. Her openness to and approval of our ideas and policy briefs was apparent and exciting, and I was able to discuss why I believed the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act was unjustifiable. It was immensely rewarding and refreshing to see that any citizen’s voice could be heard if they made an effort.
My visit to the State Capitol was a fulfilling learning experience. It is evident that there are many obstacles towards enacting a proposed bill, from the lack of researchers on-site providing up-to-date information to the partisanship present among the senators. However, I also saw that these obstacles could be overcome if citizens remain active, participate and voice their opinions. The senators and representatives are real people and citizens of the United States, just like us, and should not be thought of as intimidating. They aim to represent the people of their community, and welcome input and opinions wholeheartedly in order to make tangible change. Their enthusiasm, dedication and approachability has opened my eyes to what our government truly stands for and how I can be more involved in the process of shaping the direction that policy takes in the United States.