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VOL. 124 | NO. 121 | Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Baker, Ford Share Political Opinions At Bar Convention

By Bill Dries

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“Partisanship can be corrosive and destructive. But partisanship in the generic sense is an essential part of the political system of America.”
– Howard Baker

The family trade has skipped a generation, former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker noted at last week’s Tennessee Bar Association convention at The Peabody when speaking of his three grandsons and the law firm his grandfather founded.

But Baker has served in many other roles besides being an attorney and senior counsel of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.

He was White House chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, ambassador to Japan during the administration of President George W. Bush. He was Senate majority leader during his three terms as the first popularly elected Republican senator in Tennessee history. The Senate terms included service as vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee.

Striking a balance

Although he joked that he “used to be someone,” Baker recently joined with other former senators to author a bipartisan, budget-neutral, comprehensive health care reform proposal. The trio teamed up as part of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s advisory board.

But Baker cautioned the standing-room-only crowd of 200 people at The Peabody that bipartisanship can be overrated and overdone just as partisanship can.

“It is convenient but not essential,” he said. “We have this irresistible temptation to devour each other. … Partisanship can be corrosive and destructive. But partisanship in the generic sense is an essential part of the political system of America.”

Baker proposed making corporate or political action committee contributions illegal, but lifting any limits on personal contributions and requiring full disclosure of all contributions by candidates receiving the money before an election.

Baker was part of a two-way panel discussion with former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., which was moderated by TBA President Buck Lewis of Memphis, a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Memphis office.

Ford, who is chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, offered a more general idea about election finance reform.

He complained that congressional newcomers immediately go into re-election mode as soon as they win their first terms. He said it would be better if they could be able to focus more on making relationships in the House that could serve their districts in the future.

Federal template

Baker weighed in on the debate surrounding Tennessee’s selection process for appeals court judges, which was modified in the just-completed session of the Tennessee Legislature.

The Judicial Selection Commission in a modified form remains in place for two more years to recommend slates of finalists to the governor for vacancies. Tennessee voters will still vote a sitting appeals court judge up or down in a retention election.

“I will just be radical for a moment,” Baker said as he proposed allowing the governor to appoint whomever he or she wants and have the state Senate or both chambers of the Legislature confirm the nominee.

“I think that’s an appropriate check and balance,” he told the TBA audience. “I don’t think it needs to be elaborated on. I don’t think it needs to be extended. It works well in the federal system.”

Such an appointment and confirmation could mean a life term as an appeals court judge.

“It could go either way. I prefer a life term, but that’s a personal preference,” Baker told The Daily News after his remarks to the TBA group.

“I have no expectation that the Legislature will adopt it. But there it is, for what it’s worth.”

Ford said Senate Democrats are urging President Barack Obama to go slower and be more selective in his initiatives. But Ford said Obama and Democrats in both houses could see election reversals if the White House economic strategy doesn’t begin producing jobs soon.

Baker said he doesn’t think it’s likely the Obama health care plan will pass.

“It’s a trillion-dollar program, and I don’t know how many trillion-dollar programs we can have,” he said.

And Baker has strong reservations about government involvement in the auto industry. He said he supports banking and finance industry measures that began during the Bush administration and continue with the Obama White House.

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