The Four

We’ve survived another filibuster. This was the longest one. It lasted five weeks including a week off that lawmakers took. Actually, the participants weren’t talking all that time. But they tied up one issue affecting thousands of Missourians from March 1 until April 7.

Although we hate to sit through them because they are so often horribly boring, we like to write about them because they are at heart dramatic, human, and an exposure to the collision of ideas and ideals. Whether you agree with the positions of the participants or not, they provide a kind of political theatre that is hard not to watch. Sitting at the press table and not paying some attention to a filibuster is like driving past a bad traffic crash scene and not slowing down to look.

The month-long filibuster by four state senators ended the other day when the senate leadership was able to appease Senator Jim Lembke and three allies by promising to let Lembke cut $250 million from an upcoming appropriations bill heavily financed by federal stimulus money. Lembke fervently believes that he can send a message to congress that it should overspend—a message that congress seems already to have gotten.

The students in the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s capitol reporting program who sit with us at the Senate press table have, we hope, gotten a real-life look at the good and the bad in the way laws are made. It’s not the way the textbooks lay it out. And the main reason it isn’t is because human beings are involved and filibusters such as this one often demonstrate not only some of the best qualities of participants but also some of the worst. The view from the Senate press table affords a close-up look at that process with all of its significance and all of its warts.

The month-long rolling filibuster on the bill using federal money to pay another twenty weeks of unemployment benefits had that human element that wrapped some gawd-awful behavior sprinkled with political demagoguery around a sincerely-motivated commitment. But that’s the risk that goes with starting a filibuster when you invite others to join you.

One of the other participants thought that stereotyping the unemployed as people who needed to get off the couch and get a job was helpful to the discussion.(We are reminded of a former colleague at the Missourinet who once remarked, “Stereotyping saves time, doesn’t it?”) Another of Lembke’s allies seemed to feel that arm waving, shouting, and partisan demands that the governor get into the middle of the issue was somehow clever, amusing, and useful. (As Queen Victoria once remarked in an example of British understatement, “We are not amused.”) We’re not sure what the last participant’s contribution was. He seemed to be the little brother who wanted to play with the older kids.

So it was that Senators Lembke, Schaaf, Nieves, and Kraus set forth.

Senator Lembke is an easy target for criticism and ridicule because he was the leader of this band. Because of he way he and his cohorts conducted themselves, the focus became more on them than on the issue in which he fiercely believes. He argued that Missouri has no business accepting money that the federal government does not have and, in fact, has borrowed from China. We’ve also borrowed money from Saudi Arabia but China became the dreaded image of the filibuster.

Late in the proceedings as editorial resentment began to build against the techniques and tone of the filibuster, Lembke began to proclaim that the unemployed were not the targets of the filibuster that excessive federal spending was the target. But by then, the unattractive picture of the filibustering four had been painted—they wanted to keep long-term unemployed Missourians from getting help in keeping food on the table. Schaaf’s proclamation that the unemployed are basically deadbeats did little to dispute that portrait. And, in fact, the effect of the filibuster was to hold thousands of Missouri’s jobless people hostage until Lembke got something he wanted. The deal he has struck with the Senate President pro Tem now frees those jobless Missourians to seek those benefits. But because the Senate leadership and Lembke took so long to settle things, those jobless people will have to go through some hassles to get benefits reinstated.

It sounds pretty ugly but that is how government sometimes works. Government is is not a ballet dance very often. It is sometimes a sweaty, bloody wrestling match and the sweat and blood sometimes lands on the audience.

Filibusters are good things philosophically. They sometimes are the only tools available to a minority to protect it from being steamrollered by the majority. They sometimes are the tool one lawmaker zealot can use to change the course of the legislative process. Senator Jim Lembke, whether you appreciate him or not, has done that. And the results are even better than he thought they would be a month ago—he gets to go through an appropriations bill financed by federal stimulus money and throw out $250 million worth of what he considers pork barrel spending,

His pork might be your necessity. But he is in a position to decide what you need versus what you want when it comes to this appropriations bill. And he probably is not done. Right now he–and perhaps his silent partners who have stayed in the background during this experience—are the most powerful members of the entire Missouri General Assembly.

As for his three noisy public allies in this filibuster—they should not equate noise with importance.

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