The powers and problems for House Speakers

Posted October 31, 2013 at 12:55 pm

by Phill Brooks

Editor’s note:Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

There is a fascinating common element to what’s happening in Washington and Missouri’s House.

The common element involves the problems facing House speakers. And the troubles facing both men can best be described by phrases that start with the letter “T.”

For U.S. House Speaker John Boehner the phrase is “Tea Party,” whose supporters are imposing demands that have restricted negotiating a compromise on the budget.

For Missouri’s House Speaker Tim Jones, the phrase is “term limits,” which have contributed to a gradual reduction in the powers of an office once called the second most powerful position in state government.

There is a stark contrast in how the two speakers have handled these challenges to their power.

With reports that there would be enough Republican defections to pass a budget without cutting off funds for the health care law, Boehner persistently refused to allow a vote.

Jones, Missouri’s House Speaker, took the opposite approach, allowing a vote on the tax-cut bill veto this fall despite clear indications there would not be enough Republican votes to override the governor’s veto.

Despite the different approaches, we’re seeing in both cases speakers with less power to lead and control their chambers than during the eras of U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn or Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin.

When I started covering Missouri’s legislature, few bills could pass without the speaker’s blessing. With the absolute power to appoint and remove committee members as well as chairs, along with the power to decide the committees to which bills were assigned, a Missouri House speaker had absolute power to kill anything that did meet with his or her approval.

But with term limits, members know that there is no long-term threat for standing up to a speaker who will be gone in a year or two.

The House GOP caucus has even institutionalized the lame-duck status of the speaker with a process by which a replacement is named more than one year before the speaker’s term ends.

With an “emperor in waiting” when Missouri lawmakers return in January, they’ll know that the person who will name the chairs of powerful committees in the following year will not be Jones, but instead will be the majority leader, John Diehl.

If you’re a member who wants a key committee appointment, the person you do not want to offend will be Diehl, not Jones.

Changes in the formal House rules adopted since term limits go even further in weakening the speaker’s power.

The speaker no longer picks the minority party committee members.

The Rules Committee now makes the final decision as to which bills come before the House and which do not. In the past, the speaker had a major voice in controlling the flow of legislation by influencing committee chairs whom he could replace.

One of the leaders in establishing that Rules Committee process told me at the time that it deliberately was designed to weaken the influence of the speaker by allowing more members to control the legislature’s agenda.

With House members limited to eight years, there is less willingness to sit back and wait years to rise to a position of influence.

You might think that the legislative process might be smoother with a return to the era of powerful speakers.

But there’s another factor to consider; the old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Prior to term limits, I watched two speakers get sent off to federal prison on corruption charges.

I suspect Dick Rabbitt and Bob Griffin would not have gotten those illegal payments from special interests without the singular power of a speaker to make things happen in Missouri’s General Assembly.