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Capitol Perspectives: The History of Bipartisanship in Missouri’s Legislature

Phill Brooks
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Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - We’ve seen in Missouri’s Senate these last few weeks an echo of its distant past when compromise between the political parties defined the state’s upper chamber.

For decades, the majority party in Missouri’s House has ruled with an iron fist—but not so in the Senate.

Back when Democrats held an overwhelming majority of Senate seats, Republicans like Carthage’s Dick Webster, St. Louis County’s Clifford Jones and Springfield’s Paul Bradshaw were major players in the Senate.

Unlike today, they did not meet in closed-door party sessions to solve their legislative problems. Instead, the old lions from both aisles figured it out among themselves.

One factor that helped provide a bridge was the number of Senate Democrats from rural Missouri whose political values were closer to Republicans than the national Democratic Party.

That era of rural conservative Senate Democrats is long gone. Today, there is not one Senate Democrat from a rural district.

National trends have contributed to the change.

As with Congress, both political parties have been driven to ideological extremes by pressure groups strong enough to compete with the political parties.

Gerrymandering has made legislative districts less competitive.

Lumping voters for one party into a district has increased the number of districts in which the only real race for the seat is the primary. And to win a primary, Republicans have to run to the right while Democrats run to the left.

This all has contributed to a growing number of party-line votes in Missouri’s Senate that would have been unimaginable in the past.

Less than two decades ago, the Senate’s Republican Leader Steve Ehlmann attacked his own party for issuing a news release attacking Senate Democrats for their vote on a bill.

Around the same time, a troubled Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Jim Mathewson voiced his sense of failure in presiding over one of the few party-line votes on a major policy issue that I had seen in the Senate up to then.

But in this year’s session there have been signs that some seek to return to an era when policy overrode politics.

One example is the approach taken by the Senate’s Education Committee chair on legislation to ease problems caused by students transferring out of urban failing districts.

Republican David Pearce worked closely with metro-area Democrats to incorporate some of their ideas to improve education services for children in the troubled districts.

The other major cross-party collaboration this year involved last year’s GOP tax-cut bill that had been vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor after a series of trips around the state attacking Republican legislators.

Despite the attacks, the bill sponsor brought before the Senate this year a compromise he had worked out with Gov. Jay Nixon to get something Nixon would sign.

It’s a smaller tax cut than Sen. Will Kraus had sponsored. And some of the cuts would be delayed until the legislature other issues demanded by Nixon—large budget increases for education and cuts in tax breaks for real estate developers.

His fellow Republicans criticized Kraus for collaborating with Nixon and agreeing to what they argued were unreachable conditions for the tax cut to take effect.

But the Jackson County Republican kept repeating he wanted something that could become law.

I must confess, when Kraus first joined the legislature, I had not expected it of him. The former military infantry man and platoon leader struck me as a rigid, uncompromising conservative.

I should have known better. As I have read, successful military leaders are those willing to adjust tactics to achieve objectives.

It’s only after spending more time watching Krause that I’ve begun to understand something common in the approaches to achieve military victories and those to achieve public policy goals.

There’s even “friendly fire” as Kraus encountered when his plan came under attack from both his own party for working with Nixon and Nixon’s fellow Democrats objecting to tax cuts.

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