Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL149.PRB - Making a Difference in the Legislature«MDNM»
A few weeks before the start of this year's legislative session, I was asked by a legislative staffer if I could remember when a wave of new legislators had made a difference.
The question was asked in the context of the enormous gains voters handed Republicans in November.
To that staffer's question, I had to think a bit.
It is very difficult for a group of new lawmakers to have much of an impact.
In their first few years, few lawmakers will chair committees which provide powerful platforms to shape public policy.
The power of a committee to kill bills can give the chair leverage to gain support for the chair's own bills.
Compounding the lack of power is the complexity of the legislative process.
It takes years to learn how this process works and how to manipulate rules to one's advantage.
The terminology is confusing with phrases like perfection, third reading, Hammerschmidt and fiscal note.
It takes time to learn how to quickly read a bill and even more time to craft your own bill or amendment.
It's so difficult that a few years ago the House simply prohibited members from drafting amendments while a bill was being debated.
Instead, amendments have to be filed before debate has begun so members have time to figure out what the amendments would do -- or, at least, get a staffer's explanation.
Another aspect is the time it takes time for a legislator to learn how to compromise. That may sound like a simple thing, but I've found it can take years before a legislator learns the importance and the techniques of compromise.
In their first years, some legislators arrive with strong ideological beliefs that interfere with compromise.
Further, it takes years to develop a detailed understanding of state government and to develop a network of knowledgeable and trustworthy sources both in and outside government who can help a legislator draft an effective bill and then collect the votes.
Many new legislators do not know how to work effectively with reporters to get stories that can generate public demand for passage of a bill. With term limits, that has become a dying art in Missouri's General Assembly.
Finally, new legislators lack the personal relationships with colleagues from which coalitions can be built to pass bills.
With sometimes confused new members without long-term partnerships with their colleagues, it's easier for the more senior leadership to dominate the process and work their will.
As to that staffer's question the other week, there were two times I've seen a freshman class of lawmakers make a profound change on the legislative process and on state policy.
The first time was in the early 1970s when a wave of reform-minded legislators were swept into office in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War and the federal criminal investigations into the administration of Gov. Warren Hearnes.
Those lawmakers were unified by a cause to fundamentally change the nature of government in campaign spending disclosure, special interest money restrictions, openness in government and consumer protection.
Their drive to pass those kind of issues led to bi-partisan coalitions to get stuff done that seems impossible today.
They were helped by a young, aggressive governor in Kit Bond who shared a passion for the same issues.
The other time was a few decades later when Catherine Hanaway entered Missouri's House, just a few years before term limits led to a tidal wave of new legislators replacing old-guard lawmakers.
Hanaway quickly organized these new lawmakers into their own caucus. It took a few years for those new members to have a major effect.
But from her efforts, Hanaway led the campaign that gave Republicans the legislative majority that they continue to hold today.
[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 an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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