Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL114.PRB - The Unintended Frustrations From Open Government«MDNM»
The recent decision of the Senate General Laws Committee chair to restrict TV coverage of the committee has reminded me of the evolution I've observed in the legislature's acceptance of public scrutiny -- and the unintended frustrations.
The committee chair, Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Franklin County, banned video recording of the vote on the gun-rights bill.
When I first started covering this place, restrictions on reporters were far worse. We were banned from even attending the voting sessions of committees.
When we eventually were allowed to cover those sessions in the early 1970s, our legislative coverage improved considerably.
But there was an unintended consequence. With committee votes public, it became more difficult for committees to kill bills because lobbyists and legislative sponsors knew how committee members had voted.
Making public a committee member's negative vote could upset a campaign-contributing special interest pushing a bill. And there was the risk that the bill sponsor could seek revenge against committee members who did not support his or her bill.
The result was a flood of legislation pouring out of committees that swamped the legislative chambers. And in the rush to get bills at the top of the pile, committees dumped stuff out with less consideration.
Much of the evolution of the legislative process in recent years has been to address this tidal wave of legislation pouring out of committees.
In response to this flood of bills, legislators have conceded to their powers to their chamber leaders that would have been unthinkable to prior lawmakers.
While something had to be done, there has been an unintended consequence of diminishing the influence of individual members.
A more humorous unintended frustration from openness arose when the Senate allowed an exception to its total ban of broadcast coverage.
It is difficult realize how different the Senate was some four decades ago.
The chamber even banned taking notes in the visitor's gallery overlooking the chamber.
A couple of senators said they didn't want lobbyists using their quotes against them. The note-taking ban was dropped when it was exposed by a newspaper story that made the chamber look silly.
When the Senate finally accepted broadcast coverage, only live coverage was allowed.
Again, senators expressed fears that their words would be used against them, this time with audio snippets taken out of context.
I helped produce that first live broadcast of the Senate for St. Louis radio station KMOX. It was a disaster.
A planned debate on the death penalty never happened. Instead, senator after senator rose to make long-winded speeches about themselves, basking in the unrestricted access to the St. Louis audience.
That unintended consequence was demonstrated vividly when St. Louis area Sen. Clifford Jones rose to speak. He said not a word. Instead, Jones silently pantomimed leaving us with minutes upon minutes of deadly silence.
Our host, Bob Hardy, was angry until I explained to Bob that Jones was not making fun of us, but rather of his colleagues for spending so much Senate time patting themselves on their backs.
We never did a live broadcast from the Senate again. And partially in response to the unintended consequences of limiting coverage to unedited, live broadcasts, the Senate eventually approved regular broadcast news recording.
I do not cite these unintended frustrations for government officials as a defense of the legislature's past suppression of access. Rather, it seems to me that this history demonstrates there are annoyances to opening up government. It's the price paid for helping citizens better understand what their elected representatives and senators are doing.
I end this column with a disclosure. That KOMU-TV reporter whose camera was removed from the Senate committee was one of mine.
Further, for many years, I have been talking with legislative leaders about ways to make the annoyances from expanding reporter access as least obstructive as possible -- without interfering with the public's right to know.
The discussions continue.
[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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