Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL303.PRB - A Return to Order in Missouri's Legislature
A surprise has emerged from this year's session of Missouri's legislature.
The General Assembly has returned to an era when the leadership exercised less power to control the legislative agenda in choosing winners and losers.
While what follows may seem inside baseball, it directly impacts the power of your local legislators to be meaningful players in the process.
To understand why, you need to realize that far more bills get introduced than a legislative session of less than five months has time to review and act upon.
You might think that legislative committees would winnow out the insignificant bills and report to the full chamber a manageable number based on what the chairs and their committee members consider priorities for chamber debate.
But it's not always worked out that way.
Committee members frankly are reluctant to anger their colleagues by killing their bills. And, of course, there's pressure from special interests with financial or political clout to get their bills out of committee.
The resulting tidal wave of committee-approved bills meant that complicated priority bills which required more committee time could end up at the bottom of the list of bills before the chamber, known as the calendar.
It created a problem because both the House and Senate religiously had followed the order of bills on those calendars. So, priority bills for legislative leaders could end up too far down the calendar to have much of a chance.
In response, about a decade ago legislative leaders began to ignore the order of bills on the calendar.
It left committee chairs and bill sponsors hostage to party leaders facing pressure from special interests, other members and outside interests to take a bill up out of order.
Years earlier, bill sponsors fiercely defended the right to have a chamber debate on their bills when they reached the top of the calendar.
But with the loss of institutional memory from term limits, I sensed that members and committee chairs did not fully realize the power legislative leaders had seized.
But this year, both House and Senate majority leaders returned to the past tradition to follow the calender order of bills.
"There's been a push to just make sure individual senators' power is recognized...I also want to make sure that they know that their voices are being heard and that they have as much of a chance to get something done for their community as I do," said Senate Republican Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia.
Both Rowden and the House GOP leader Rob Vescovo, R-Jefferson County, said the more orderly process gives members a heads up to prepare for what they'll be debating and voting upon each day.
But, Vescovo agreed with my assessment that this new approach weakened the powers of majority leaders to control the agenda.
"I'm OK with reducing my power. I think the floor leader has too much power already, right. The power shouldn't be used just for this office, it should be used for the entire caucus."
Facilitating this more orderly process requires discipline of committees to avoid dumping out unrealistic numbers of bills.
That committee discipline has been obvious in the House which has been able to clear most of the bills that were on the calendars at the start of the week.
Another major change this year has been the limited number of contentious partisan issues presented for chamber debate.
Rowden noted the difference: "We didn't go into this with many of those kind of predestined problems...I think that allowed us the freedom and flexibility to say, hey, let's do this the right way."
But both floor leaders acknowledged a "we'll see" caution as to whether this more orderly process can be maintained when the legislature enters the final weeks with pressure to get bills passed.
That's a good point. Even in the days of old when the legislature was disciplined about the calendar order of bills, legislative leaders found ways to get around the restrictions of rules and process in the closing weeks.
And, for sure, I expect a few contentious issues like abortion restrictions will be dominating issues for the closing weeks of the session.
Yet, I sense the current crop of new legislative leaders have instilled a more orderly approach and one that restores the power of individual members of your Missouri General Assembly.
[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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