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Capitol Perspectives: Term Limits and Civility

Phill Brooks
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Jefferson City, MO
Election Returns

One of the more poignant moments of this fall’s legislative special session came when a senator, Jason Crowell, hurled a curse word at the Senate’s president pro tem, Rob Mayer — h**l.

It was a rare loss of civility in a chamber that prides itself on decorum. At least one member cited it as an example of the effects of legislative term limits.

There is a lot to be said about that argument.

Before term limits, legislators looked at their colleagues almost like members of a family. Many of the senators I’ve covered over the decades saw the Senate as the pinnacle their political careers, which they did not intend to abandon until infirmities, defeat or death drove them out.

Think of those long-term Senate lions who stayed in chamber for decades — Norman Merrell, Dick Webster, John Russell and Clifford Jones.

A former Senate Democratic leader, Basey Vanlandingham, once told me he had no interest in running for governor because governors come and go while senators always will be there. He was not entirely joking.

Because of the extended time many members expected to spend in the Senate, they saw their colleagues as people with whom they would have nearly lifelong relationships. They truly respected one another and enjoyed their company to a degree I do not sense today. There’s not the kind of socializing or the spirit of what’s almost a family gathering when the legislature is in session.

In particular, members treated their leadership with public respect. There was an understanding that the Senate’s president pro tem represented the collective “family” of the Senate in dealings with the House, the governor and other outsiders.

Conversely, Senate leaders did not take their members for granted. Leadership slots rotated. Before term limits, the Senate president pro tem knew that in a few years he’d step down to return as just a regular member. That leads to a quite different mindset, I suspect, than if a top Senate leader sees the position as the culmination of Senate service.

And because members stayed around for so long, there was a long-term collective memory for bad or offensive behavior. Treating your colleagues poorly could have years of consequences.

It would, however, be a mistake to completely glorify the old days.

Supporters of term limits argued that these long-term veterans developed an arrogance of office. There is something to be said about that.

Some members would use their office for personal vendettas. Former State Auditor George Lehr once told me that the House Appropriations Committee chair at the time, Jay Russell, had threatened to cut Lehr’s budget by $1 million unless Lehr fired an auditor’s office staffer who had upset Russell.

Clifford Jones was one the Senate’s most educated and genteel members. But during committee hearings he sometimes would put his stocking-clad feet on the committee table facing a witness (the socks did not always match, by the way).

And the Senate was not always so civil during those pre-term limit years. There was one senator back decades ago who was threatened with having his seat and desk placed outside the chamber if he did not stop his frequent cursing on the Senate floor, when members assumed he was intoxicated.

A few years later, the Senate collectively hushed up a physical altercation with a female staffer by a colleague.

Today, it is a far less rowdy atmosphere in Missouri’s legislature. There’s a more business-like tone. Does that lead to better public policy? There are those who argue that the loss of long-term personal relationships has hampered the opportunities for members with different political and cultural perspectives to forge compromises.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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