Capitol Perspectives: Partisanship in Missouri’s Legislature By Phill Brooks
Earlier this year, I had a friendly debate with Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin.
In his final months in Missouri’s General Assembly, we were reminiscing about his history as the state’s only House speaker to become the Senate’s top leader.
I remarked that Missouri’s Senate had become a more partisan body from decades earlier.
He cited the friendships among members between both parties.
He’s got a point.
I’ve not heard the number deep personal hostilities that I covered in the early 2000s after Senate Democrats elected a highly partisan advocate who continually filibustered Senate Republicans.
But our discussion led me to look at the party divide on the major roll calls I’ve been recording since 1995. It’s the state’s oldest online record of legislative votes.
I recorded only the votes I judged to be major issues before the legislature. The data reveal a growing party divide on substantive roll calls in both chambers.
For example, in the mid 1990s, only one quarter of major Senate roll calls reflected party-line votes.
But in the last three years, it’s been more than half.
Further, the degree of party conformity also has grown. In both parties, there are fewer members who vote opposite from the majority of their party colleagues.
For this column, I defined party-line votes as those for which at least two thirds of one party’s members voted the opposite of at least two thirds of the other party.
But you don’t need raw statistics to demonstrate the growing partisanship.
It’s obvious the Republican and Democratic caucuses have become increasingly ideologically rigid when you listen to legislative debates or look at what the majority party allows to pass.
When I began covering the legislature, there was not such a party divide. Some Democratic senators were as conservative as their Republican colleagues.
The Republican caucus had a few moderates who fought parts of the Republican conservative agenda.
I’ve often wondered whether the growing ideological party purity is a reflection of the geographic purity of party members.
Unlike decades ago, there are few Democratic legislators from rural, conservative Missouri.
It once led me to joke with a Senate Democratic leader that her party caucus had become the “I70 Democrats” because every Democratic senator lived in the metro areas served by Interstate 70.
Regardless of the cause, this party rigidity has a profound effect on the legislative process.
To a degree unimaginable just a few decades ago, party caucuses regularly hold closed-door meetings to adopt the party’s line on issues before the legislature.
Democrats rarely get to sponsor the legislature’s priority bills.
That’s quite different from more than half a century ago when a large motor-fuel tax increase for highways that passed a Democrat-controlled legislature was named after the House GOP leader, R. J. Bus King.
Yet, I think Ron Richard had a point.
Cross-party friendships do remain. There are fewer mean-spirited chamber debates between parties than I heard in prior years.
But I’m not sure that’s entirely a good sign. More than once I’ve heard a legislator confess to me that passionate debate is futile because of the pressures for party loyalty.
Why speak out with passion when you know it will not change the votes of your colleagues across the aisle or could cost you in your own caucus?
That, however, is not the government envisioned by some of the founders of our country who perceived a system independent of party.
My thoughts for this column were crystallized when I heard Sen. Joe Lieberman at John McCain’s memorial service describing the late Arizona senator’s frustration with “the mindless partisanship that has taken control of both parties.”
I wonder, if in Missouri, that will change in 2019, when our legislature will have a new team of legislative leaders who could change the culture.
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.