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Capitol Perspectives: Musical Chairs

Phill Brooks
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Jefferson City, MO
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At times, it looked like Missouri’s legislative special session might have been involved in something similar to a child’s game of musical chairs.

Instead of trying to avoid being left without a chair when the music stops, the goal in the legislative game is for a chamber to avoid being stuck with the bill when the session stops.

A few legislators speculate that the House of Representatives vote was, in part, an effort to show that they had the votes and to avoid the blame for killing the measure … by dumping it back into the Senate.

I’ve never really accepted the idea that the chamber in which a bill dies really makes much difference in the ultimate blame game.

If it’s a bill the general public had wanted passed, I suspect the frustration is with the entire General Assembly rather than the specific chamber that had technical possession of the bill when the session ended.

As for special interests pushing a bill, they have lobbyists close enough to the legislature and with enough experience to not get fooled.

This relates to a humorous story from decades ago, back when the annual session of the legislature ended at midnight rather than 6 p.m.

Sen. Clifford Jones wanted to illustrate what he saw as the foolishness in the midnight rush to get bills out of the Senate chamber.

Back then, there would be a much larger pile of unfinished business in the last day than we find today. It was far more than the chamber could handle on the last day. So, as the clock got closer to midnight, it became a mad dash, a furious pace with votes on bills coming at a near blink of an eye.

The St. Louis County Republican had a staffer monkey with the Senate’s official clock in the chamber to have it run a bit fast.

At the end of each day when the Senate was not meeting, the staffer would reset the clock back to the correct time, so there would not be a growing error that would become noticeable.

Jones told me about his scheme, swearing me to secrecy. During Senate sessions, I’d look at that clock and figure that surely someone would notice the time was not quite right. Nobody did.

So, it came to the last night of that year’s session. As the clock approached midnight, Senate action became frantic to get as many bills out of the chamber as possible.

The clock struck 12. The Senate promptly adjourned. Traditionally, the legislature has been pretty faithful to the time the state Constitution sets for the end of the annual session.

Senators departed the chamber, only to discover that on the other side of the building, the House was still passing bills they expected the Senate to take up.

It was not much of a time difference — less than 10 minutes as I recall. But on the legislature’s last hour, that can be an eternity.

I do not remember if the Senate ever figured out why they had adjourned early or who was to blame.

Jones passed away years ago, so I’m not betraying his confidence. Besides, I’m confident Jones would be proud of his accomplishment of snarling up the legislative version of musical chairs.

I should conclude with a confession that I was a bit reluctant to write this column suggesting that the legislative musical chairs game was a component in the China hub bill.

I think that might have been a factor, at least at times, but I don’t know for sure. There are legislators and lobbyists who earnestly have argued throughout the session that the China hub really did have a chance to become law and that the efforts were serious.

Or, maybe the measure will be sent to a House-Senate conference committee to languish to death without either chamber subject to sole blame, a game of musical chairs in which all the chairs have been taken away when the music stops.

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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