The Missouri Senate this year was like an old clunker on the long drive home.
The thing kept breaking down — over and over again — sparking shouting matches, outright fury and mass confusion. That’s not good for the way government is conducted in the state. And it sure doesn’t bode well for the future.
In fact, things are so bad that Gov. Eric Greitens has broadly hinted that he might call lawmakers back into special session this year. If he does, senators are almost certain to continue the fiasco of Friday afternoon, when tempers got so out of control during the regular session’s final day that Senate leaders mercifully adjourned early.
Quitting before the mandatory 6 p.m. deadline with big issues still on the table is a rarity. And it’s a shame, too. Left unaddressed were bills that merited consideration. One would have limited gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers. Another would have created a desperately needed statewide prescription drug monitoring program aimed at curbing Missouri’s opioid epidemic.
Instead, all we got was chaos and endless bickering over rules and who had been recognized to speak. Onlookers said it was the worst display they’d ever seen.
At one point, senators admitted they didn’t know what motion was under debate.
At another, Sen. Dave Schatz, a Sullivan Republican, said this on the floor: “My point of order is, the motion to lay on the table is out of order, and that we should go immediately to the vote on the previous question because pursuant to Rule 84, it’s non-debatable and 73 clearly states it is a question under debate. So you cannot debate an undebateable motion.”
Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat, erupted after Republicans employed a rarely used tactic to cut off discussion in a chamber where debate is cherished as the right of every senator, even minority-party members.
“This is shameful,” she said. “I’m ashamed to be a member of this body right now, and it’s disgusting. It’s awful, it’s shameful, it’s hypocritical.”
Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, was so overcome with frustration that he slammed his fist on his desk.
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat, added this comment in a line directed at the GOP majority: “We’re not going to follow the rules if you don’t follow the rules.”
You get the idea.
The problem is this: The Senate is becoming more like the House of Representatives. In the House, with its 163 members, chaos is part of the culture. Cutting off debate is seen as the right of the majority party.
With just 34 members, the Senate is viewed as the cool saucer beneath that hot cup of coffee. The pace is slower. Debates are more measured. The minority party has rights and, in theory, can kill or modify disliked legislation by wielding the filibuster. That’s the beauty of a Senate. It balances the power of the majority.
But that dynamic disappeared last week, and it’s happening more often. Partisanship runs too deep. Tensions are too high.
This amounts to a fundamental change in our government, and it’s a lousy one. Cool heads and respectful deliberation are good things in the so-called upper chamber. Right now, the Missouri Senate has neither, and you wonder if it ever will again.