by Phill Brooks
While political pundits have focused on the reasons for the crushing defeat of Missouri Democrats, I’ve been wondering about something else — the opportunity to “Reboot Government.”
With Republicans maintaining an overwhelming majority in the state legislature and the sweep of statewide offices, Republicans have an opportunity to fundamentally change the very nature of Missouri government.
That thought came to me just a week after the elections when I ran into the state leader who coined the term “Rebooting Government” — Charlie Shields.
As the Senate’s president pro tem after the GOP victories of 2010, Shields took an approach I’d never seen in the legislature before.
Shields resisted the temptation to take quick advantage of the Republican majority to railroad an agenda.
Instead, as he had a year earlier, he slowed down the legislature’s January rush for action to give lawmakers more time to study the issues facing our state.
That more deliberative approach was in stark contrast to the near insanity of the January start of a legislative session.
Even before lawmakers convene, lobbyists are pushing legislators to sponsor bills for their special interests.
Legislators themselves sponsor those bills or frantically draft their own bills to give them a head start in the session. That puts pressure on committee chairs to push out bills as early as possible.
I’ve found this frantic process leaves too little time to craft effective solutions to some of the state’s most complicated problems — such as our crumbling highway system.
Shield’s “Rebooting Government” took another approach.
Under his plan, Senate committees were blocked from taking up bills at the start of the 2011 session.
The House had tried that years earlier in delaying when committees could vote on bills. But Shields went further.
He created independent Senate groups to brainstorm issues before formal committees could take up bills. The task of each group essentially was to “roll back their chairs” and think outside the box.
His practical problem-solving approach made sense for Shields who is medical facility executive in a field where hasty decisions can have catastrophic medical consequences.
While I admired his effort, at the time I considered it a “fool’s errand.”
The pressures from lobbyists and the public for swift legislative action precludes the longer, thoughtful process Shields had sought.
Besides, in the era of term limits, legislators cannot afford to delay building a legislative record to seek higher office.
Before term limits, legislators enjoyed being in this statehouse so much that they would spend their falls and summers working on interim committee sessions to prepare for the next year’s legislative session.
No more. Quick success is today’s demand.
So, at first, I felt that history had proved me correct in my skepticism. “Rebooting Government” became a footnote in Missouri history.
But encountering Charlie Shields the other day reminded me of his vision.
And it made me think about the unique opportunity for our governor-elect, Eric Greitens, along with his Republican legislators to make this a different era.
Because Republicans control two branches of government, there should be no partisan gridlock that Shields faced with a Democratic governor.
The sweeping magnitude of the Missouri GOP November victory should remove pressure for swift governmental action. After all, Republicans likely will control state government for at least the next four years.
That gives them time to develop effective solutions.
In addition, there’s a bridge for bi-partisan collaboration with Democrats.
Missourians elected to statewide office two Republican state senators with a legislative history of cooperation with Democrats — Missouri’s future lieutenant governor, Mike Parson, and future treasurer, Eric Schmitt.
So, what do Republicans do with this assurance of continued power and with players who have a history of working across party lines?
Shields’ “Rebooting Government” ultimately failed to produce transcending solutions for the state’s biggest challenges. There was just too little time at the start of the legislative session.
But I’ll be wondering what Missouri’s new political leadership will do with the opportunity of more time to “Reboot Government.”