Capitol Perspectives: Learning to be winners and losers

Posted November 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm

by Phill Brooks

Members of Congress in Washington should take a look at Missouri if they’re really serious about post-election promises to end the gridlock that has stymied the federal government.

In Missouri, political leaders have found ways to work together in a government divided between the two political parties. Policy differences still exist, but there’s a degree of cordiality that has been missing in Washington in recent years.

This partisan harmony did not come easy or quickly in Missouri. Rather, it took time for Democrats to accept their minority legislative status and for Republicans to learn to temper their use of power.

When I started covering Missouri’s statehouse, Democrats had a hammer lock on the legislature. Until the early 1980s, they enjoyed veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate. Republicans accepted their minority role in the legislature.

I still vividly recall the embarrassment displayed by the House Republican leader, Bus King, when one of his top aides charged the administration of Democrat Warren Hearnes with distorting tax collection figures.

The charge eventually proved to be true. But that wasn’t the point. Rather, the point was that Republicans did not rock the boat.

That attitude of accepting minority status began to change as Republican numbers began to grow. And when they finally got control of the legislature a decade ago, they ruled with an iron hand.

Social conservative issues were pushed with repeated votes to shut off Democratic filibusters in the Senate.

Democrats were just as disagreeable. The Democratic Senate leader at the time, Ken Jacob, openly acknowledged that his repeated filibusters on even minor issues were designed to slow down the entire legislative process to stall a Republican agenda. He sought gridlock.

It was an ugly period in Missouri. The Democratic governor was even heckled during an address to a joint session of the Republican-controlled legislature.

It was akin to and maybe worse than the gridlock we see now in the U.S. Senate.

But in Missouri, things began to change. I sensed that one of the reasons was that legislators simply did not like the atmosphere they had created. Even staff privately complained that it was an unpleasant place in which to work.

The Senate’s Democratic leader, Maida Coleman, who succeeded Jacob, deserves a lot of credit. She went out of her way to develop a working relationship with Republicans.

On the GOP side, a small group negotiated a compromise to end the Democratic filibusters and the corresponding Republican threats to stifle debate. Under the agreement, those Republicans agreed not to support motions to shut off debate if Democrats would agree to restrict their filibusters to major issues and would work to find areas of compromise.

Over in the House, Republican Speaker Steve Tilley handed over four committee chairs to Democrats, including a powerful appropriations committee. House Democrats were appreciative. At times, the House Democratic leaders were more critical of their Democratic governor than of the Republican House speakers.

And Jay Nixon has made a difference. Unlike the last Democratic governor, Bob Holden, Nixon has not pushed an ideological or partisan agenda. Some of his supporters say he recognizes that with a solid Republican majority in the legislature, there are limits to what he can get through the General Assembly.

Whether this cooperative approach continues with Republicans now enjoying an historic margin in the legislature will be one of the major questions for the 2013 legislative session.

There are some initial signs of change. The new House Speaker, Tim Jones, has fired a salvo across the governor’s bow warning that with veto-proof majorities, the governor had better begin working more closely with the legislature. Further, Jones would not commit to continuing his predecessor’s approach of sharing committee chairs with Democrats.

On the other hand, the Senate’s new Democratic leader, Jolie Justus, was effusive in praise for the Senate’s incoming president pro tem, Tom Dempsey. She went to great length to describe her friendship with him.

And Dempsey was a member of that small group of Republicans who worked out the agreement with Democrats that laid the foundation for partisan tranquility in Missouri’s Senate these last few years.