«RM75»«FC»COL214.PRB - From Chaos to Order in Missouri's Legislature
In the first two months of Missouri's General Assembly, there are signs of a return to a more orderly process in how lawmakers do their business.
There is an obvious change in the pattern of recent years for an increasing disregard of rules designed to assure an organized and predictable procedure.
For example, the formal list of bills before each chamber which are supposed to be considered in order was abandoned.
Instead, majority leaders just jumped around in complete disregard to the formal, official order of bills -- called a calendar.
I still recall a conversation I had years ago with Rep. John Diehl, R-St. Louis County, when he was the House Republican leader.
When I asked if he really could take up a measure he wanted to advance more quickly than House rules allowed, Diehl bluntly responded that legislative rules are just advisory.
He had a point. Courts have resisted interfering with the internal operations of an independent branch of government so long as the legislature does not violate the Constitution.
That's essentially at the heart of a current case before the Missouri Supreme Court challenging the Senate's position that committee chairs can block the public from recording their committee sessions.
While the law requires government bodies to allow the general public to record government meetings, the state the Constitution gives the legislature power to govern its own proceedings.
There are, however, some subtle signs that legislative leaders voluntarily are backing away from chaos.
Both the House and Senate leaders are making a greater effort to follow the order of bills on their calendars. It has made the day's session a bit more predictable for members -- as well as lobbyists and, I must confess, for reporters.
Another sign of a less chaotic process came in January from the new House Speaker -- Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.
At the start of this year's session, he told reporters that there would be a separate bill for each topic of the ethics package he was pushing. And under questioning, he indicated that was the approach he intended for other bills -- to limit each bill to a single topic.
That would be a dramatic shift in the past approach of the House. It regularly turned simple issues into bloated elephants of completely unrelated issues that were attached by amendments.
Creating legislative behemoths was done to rush through the legislature passage of separate issues that could not make it through the process on their own.
But it was an awful tactic. It forced legislators to vote for piles of stuff they might not have had time to read. It also forced lawmakers to vote for stuff they opposed in order to be on the record supporting the underlying bill.
That tactic also violates the state Constitution which requires a bill be limited to a single topic.
The Missouri Supreme Court made that perfectly clear in a 1994 decision throwing out a state law because the bill dealt with more than one topic.
In an era of term limits, that decision of more than two decades ago seemed to have been forgotten.
But the courts have not forgotten -- as the legislature learned earlier this year when a Cole County circuit court tossed out what had started as a simple issue, but became a legislative monstrosity.
The 2014 law began as a simple proposal to let county voters return their prosecutor's position to a part-time job.
As it moved through the legislature, it became a freight train for completely unrelated issues that proponents could not get passed on their own.
Maybe the court decision invaliding that law along with the recent efforts of legislative leaders will bring some order to the legislative chaos.
But I'm skeptical.
In the closing days, the pressure for chaos from special interests and individual lawmakers to get bills passed without full consideration is nearly insurmountable.
[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.]