Capitol Perspectives: Civilizing the Legislature
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KMOX/Capitol Bureau) – Every year about this time as the legislature enters its closing days, I think about the near carnival atmosphere in past decades when Missouri’s General Assembly entered the final rush.
Back when the legislature went to midnight on the last day, it was party time for many—literally.
Some legislators set up bars in the hallways outside their Capitol offices offering free drinks.
Jefferson City high school kids came to the statehouse knowing they would not have to show an ID to get alcoholic beverages.
In the 1970s, one of the state’s major issues of the year died when the sponsor was passed out and could not make what should have been a routine motion on the last night.
The failed bill was to establish a uniform legal age for adulthood—something that remains absent in our laws to this day.
Voter approval of a constitutional amendment to move the adjournment of the legislature’s final day from midnight to 6 p.m. has been a major step in civilizing the process.
The party atmosphere largely has ended.
Another major step in calming down the process was moving the deadline for passage of the budget to a week earlier.
Before, budget standoffs between the House and Senate produced an annual show on the legislature’s last night.
One feature of the budget process in those closing hours was called he midnight Special.” It was a budget bill rushed through just before midnight to fund all the new and expanded programs lawmakers had passed during the session in other bills.
Bleary-eyed from a marathon day, I’m not sure how many legislators fully read the “Midnight Special” before casting their votes.
At first, legislators tried to fix this last-day budget circus with a joint rule requiring the budget be passed a week early.
It worked — but for just one year. The following year, lawmakers missed their self-imposed deadline. It was no big deal. The legislature simply voted to suspend their rule to allow more time to resolve a budget impasse. And after that, nobody took the deadline seriously.
That led to a constitutional amendment imposing a deadline. And to make it serious, the amendment prohibits lawmakers from taking up the budget in a special session if they miss the deadline.
That, too, worked for a while—until the deadline was missed because of an impasse over state family planning funding for Planned Parenthood.
Gov. Mel Carnahan promptly called a special session to finish the budget. His staff argued that the budget deadline did not apply to sessions called by the governor, only to special sessions called by the legislature itself.
I don’t think that was the intention of the amendment’s sponsor, but nobody filed a legal challenge to the tardy budget.
The latest change to slow down the last minute rush has been a House rule that requires any committee or conference proposal be submitted to members the night before.
It avoids House members being surprised, but critics complain it also has made House debate less meaningful since changes cannot be crafted in response to the discussion.
Despite the changes, the appearance of madness has not completely left the closing days of your General Assembly.
In the House, amendments routinely are stuck onto bills with little debate and almost no relationship to the bill. It’s just a way to pressure the Senate.
In the Senate, filibusters become more frequent.
Minority party members may not have enough votes to pass bills, but if they give the indication they will not shut up, it gives them bargaining power to force compromise.
Complicated deals and horse trading one bill for another become more frequent. So too do threats from the majority party to shut off debate if the minority will not compromise.
While his process may appear chaotic to outsiders, it reflects the wish of our Founding Fathers to avoid a tyranny of the majority.
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