“You have courage,” they tell me.
It’s not true. I was never courageous.
I simply felt it unbecoming
to stoop to the cowardice of my colleagues
–Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Soviet poet of the Khrushchev era, ”Conversation with an American Writer
The two greybeards of the Capitol press corps, talking in the darkening and increasingly quiet Capitol halls early this morning, agreed we’d never seen a veto session like the one that had ended shortly before. Phill Brooks and this correspondent have never seen 29 bills eligible for overrides. We’ve never seen so many vetoes overridden in one session, brief though it might have been–and nobody else has, either, since 1833, somewhat before our time. We have never seen the two top leaders of the state senate make a principled vote against the wishes of their caucus, causing the override effort of a highly-controversial bill to fail.
And while we have seen spirited debate in the Senate in our combined eighty years or so of covering the legislature, we probably have never seen a worse disregard of Senate debate decorum than we saw last night.
The issue was the gun bill, the one that critics say would let local police arrest any federal agent enforcing federal gun laws. It’s the same bill that would have sent reporters to jail for a year for publishing the names of gun owners, even the names of legislator-gun owners who voted for the bill. The override failed by one vote because Senate President Pro tem Tom Dempsey of St. Charles and Senate Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard of Joplin voted to uphold the veto while the other members of the Republican caucus voted to override it.
We’ve seen some pointed and sometimes angry debate during our careers. Phill recalled Senator Richard Webster of Carthage ripping fresh-faced Governor Christopher Bond a few times, calling him “Kid” Bond and Bond’s staff “the kiddie corps” back when Bond was the youngest Governor in Missouri history and Webster was a top dog in the General Assembly and liked to make sure youngsters knew it.
But the tirade launched by the Senate sponsor of HB436, the gun bill, Brian Nieves of Washington, beat anything this correspondent has ever seen in the Senate.
Nieves brought the bill to the floor for an override vote but instead of justifying the legislation and urging support of its merits, he tore into Attorney General Chris Koster for 25 minutes. Koster had sent each member of the legislature a letter, going into legal detail about the shortcomings of the measure. He sent out those letters a few days after he had given an opinion on the other flashpoint bill of the veto session, the tax bill. In the case of the tax bill, he was responding to a request for a legal opinion from House Speaker Tim Jones. Jones and other Republicans criticized Koster because his annotated legal opinion didn’t say what they wanted him to say.
Nieves cranked up the rhetorical onslaught when the gun bill came up.
In his 25-minute harangue against Koster and Koster’s letter, Nieves called Koster’s analysis of the gun bill “every kind of crazy imaginings…false arguments” and said Koster was “perhaps the most anti-Second Amendment person in Missouri.”
He said the letter, which he called a “joke of a document,” and the “most dishonest, disingenuous document I’ve ever seen,” scared the bejeezus” out of the law enforcement community. He further proclaimed that the letter “perpetrates a crime against the people of Missouri,” calling it a “ridiculous, untrue document,” and a “slick, snakeish move.”
“He has lied and lied and lied,” said Nieves, who continued by accusing Koster of “hating the Second Amendment.”
He later said Koster had taken time to draft the letter “to think up this level of lie.” He further said Koster was “lying” in the letter.
“This letter is the biggest bunch of baloney that’s ever been presented from an official in Missouri government,” he said. “He did it by lying and did it by deceptively using perfect timing” in the release of the letter to each member of the legislature days before the veto session.
However, Pro tem Tom Dempsey says he had heard concerns from public safety officials before Koster put out his letter. Floor Leader Richard said he had a letter from the Missouri Sheriff’s Association a week before the Koster letter arrived.
Dempsey released a statement after the session saying HB436 represented a point where “political prudence and good public policy have parted ways…While I have been advised to take a path of least resistance and vote to enact into law a policy about which I have grave reservations, I believe I must do what is right for the citizens of our state and for the voters who sent me here.”
Dempsey said his own legal staff had told him the bill “very likely” violates parts of the First Amendment. “My love of the Second Amendment does not trump my love for the First,” he said.
Dempsey’s remarks were echoed by Richard, who pledged “in the next four months, legislation will be filed regarding the Second Amendment Preservation Act that is constitutional and does not hinder law enforcement officers’ ability to do their jobs.”
Thoughtful, perhaps courageous, speech and action is, unfortunately, something unusual enough to merit attention in today’s political and legislative climate that is too often marked by disrespect for process and people and can degenerate into nothing but largely-unchallenged personal attack. Two Democrats chastised Nieves for his remarks. No members of Nieves’ Republican caucus expressed any misgivings about anything he said. But in the end the two leaders of the Senate, both Republicans, quietly voted “no,” their votes far louder than their voices.
The greybeards sometimes wonder if they will live long enough to see “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” in the House behave again as ladies and gentlemen, and if they will see Senators behaving as Senators.