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Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL213.PRB - Punting the Football in Government
The efforts by some Republicans to put off filling the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court has a fascinating similarity with Missouri.
Within hours of the reported death of Justice Anthony Scalia, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to punt the selection of Scalia's successor to President Barack Obama's successor.
McConnell, of course, is hoping for a Republican presidential victory in November.
But if he succeeds in his delaying tactic, it would leave the nation with an ideologically divided court that could be hamstrung with four-to-four tie votes for nearly a year or longer.
A similar call for delay is being made in Missouri with the University of Missouri Board of Curators.
Like McConnell, the Missouri Senate's top leader has called for punting the football of MU's leadership to the next administration.
"I will tell you that we're not going to appoint any curators until there's a new governor in January," vowed Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, at a session with reporters and editors from across the state in early February.
Such a delay could be as disruptive for the university as U.S. Supreme Court tie votes could be for resolution of national legal issues.
Three of the nine seats on the governing board of the university are empty at a time the institution is facing some of the biggest crises.
Enrollment has dropped, creating severe budget problems. The university is under legislative attack for allowing student protesters drive out the university's president and for not dismissing a faculty member charged with assault for trying to block a student journalist from covering the protesters.
At a time of continuing racial tensions on the Columbia campus, the University of Missouri Board of Curators has been left without a single black member.
But Missouri's Senate is in a weaker position than the U.S. Senate to stop a chief executive from filling vacancies.
It involves the power of the chief executive to fill positions when the Senate is not in session.
The framers of both the national Constitution and Missouri's Constitution saw wisdom in not allowing positions requiring confirmation to sit vacant when the Senate was not in session.
So, both the president and governor are empowered to make temporary appointments when the Senate is not around.
But the part-time nature of Missouri's General Assembly makes that a more powerful tool for a governor.
Missouri's legislature meets less than five months out of the year. When this year's session adjourns in mid-May, Gov. Jay Nixon is free to appoint anyone he wants to the board of curators.
That appointee, or appointees, would hold office without Senate confirmation until 30 days after the legislature began the 2017 session. And there is nothing the Senate can do about it.
The president has the power to make similar "recess" appointments when the Senate is in recess. But a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision expanded the power of the Senate to control what is considered a recess.
Arguably, they might be able to keep the Senate technically in session without a three-day recess for the rest of this year.
There is no such power in the hands of Missouri's Senate. They will be done in mid-May.
But in Missouri, the tactics of stalling have been used by both sides.
Democrat Nixon has delayed for months calling special elections to fill vacant legislative seats, particularly Republican seats.
He's delayed Senate confirmation requirements for top administration jobs by simply naming "temporary" interim or acting agency directors who stay around for months.
It's become such a common practice of Nixon's that measures have been filed to set a deadline on the governor to call special elections and to give the legislature itself power to fill a department director's vacancy if the governor does not act promptly.
Just like in football, both sides punt the football in hopes for better times.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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