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Capitol Perspectives: The Senate Drains

Phill Brooks
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Photo: KMOX

Photo: KMOX

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I suspect few, if any, of the current members of the Missouri Senate understand why their chamber desktops have what look like brass drains you would find in a kitchen or bathroom sink.

They actually are sink drains and they are part of a fascinating story about a multi-year and somewhat behind-the-scenes scheme by one of the chamber’s more conservative members to drag the Senate into the modern era.

He was the Senate’s president pro tem, Norman Merrill. And his initial efforts are the foundation for why you can listen on Internet today to sessions of Missouri’s Senate.

The first step for a sound system came when microphones were attached to the two lamp posts in the front of the chamber. The sound was awful, you could not really understand much. But it was a first step.

From the frustrations with those microphones at the far front of the chamber, it was clear there had to be a microphone for each senator.

But because there was so much resistance to a sound system in the tradition-bound Senate, not to mention opposition to the possibility of broadcast coverage, Merrill had to be a bit surreptitious.

One year when carpeting was being replaced in the chamber, Merrill had audio wiring installed under the floor for a sound system that could be installed at some unknown future date. Since it was being done when the Senate was not in session, few noticed.

Then, later without a formal chamber vote, a microphone appeared at each senator’s desk connected to that under-the floor wiring. But it was done on the cheap. Rather than expensive microphone stands, metal sink drains were installed into holes drilled into each desk with the microphones inserted inside the drains.

It kind of worked, but not very well. To avoid the necessity of redefining a Senate staffer’s job to control the microphones, they were voice-activated. The consequence was that even shuffling paper would activate the microphone and pump noise into the sound system.

Even worse, papers that drifted on top of a microphone’s drain hole cut the senator off from the sound system. To this day, I’m convinced that Sen. John Schneider, D-St. Louis County, deliberately covered up the microphone inside that drain hole on his desktop to avoid broadcast coverage.

It was not that Schneider avoided news coverage. Just the opposite. I found him to be an extremely cooperative and helpful news source. Rather, I think Schneider felt that too many senators were performing for broadcast coverage to a degree that had degenerated discourse among his colleagues.

Eventually, clip-on microphones replaced those sink-drain contraptions. But the bright, brass drains remain on senators’ desks — although now slightly tarnished over the years. Inside the drains, you still can see the rubber cushions that held the microphones.

The Senate’s evolving sound system facilitated the chamber’s first broadcast coverage by my St. Louis radio station, KMOX. The Senate required it be live because it prohibited recording of their debates. Some members said they feared their comments would be taken out of context.

KMOX’s coverage was scheduled for the Senate’s debate on the death penalty. But so many senators wanted to get their voices on the state’s number one radio station, that they spent hours making speeches on completely unrelated issues.

It reached a point of absurdity when St. Louis County’s Clifford Jones got up and said absolutely nothing. Instead, Jones just pantomimed, endlessly, not saying a word that could be broadcast.

“Cliffy” actually was trying to make a point — to ridicule how his colleagues were playing to the media rather than addressing the business before the Senate.

As a broadcast reporter, I hate to admit that I think there is something behind the protests of Jones and Schneider about how technology can adversely affect what is supposed to be a deliberative process.

Before there was an audio system in the Senate, a member had to speak up, project his or her voice and speak in a dramatic style to be heard, just like an actor on stage.

The resulting skills senators developed contributed to some of the greatest legislative oratory I’ve heard in Missouri.

Today, however, even the mildest, softest spoken speech is amplified.

Even worse, modern technology does not even require members — or we reporters — to be in the chamber to follow what’s going on in the Senate.

Instead, you can follow the Senate on the Internet anywhere in the world — at your office, while you’re dining, reading a book, watching TV, sitting in your backyard or pursuing any other distracting activity.

At times, it is a far less populated chamber to which a senator is talking than when I started as a reporter. Now, you usually find empty seats at the Senate press table that once was jammed with reporters. Now, we often listen to the Senate in our offices or on our smart phones while working on other tasks.

By way of full disclosure, I advised Merrill during his initial efforts to make it possible to record Senate proceedings. So, I guess I share a small bit of the blame for those strange drains in the desktops of Missouri’s senators.

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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