Ethics reform has sparked an all out political war in the Missouri House, no small achievement for a measure that stood on the doorstep of passage after clearing a House committee on a unanimous vote.
Debate Thursday on the House floor had nothing to do with ethics. It had everything to do with raw, political power. House Speaker Ron Richard, a Republican from Joplin, appointed a special committee this session to review the various ethics reform measures promoted after several former legislators embarrassed the General Assembly, some now serving prison terms. That committee, saddled with the unwieldy title of Special Committee on Governmental Accountability and Ethics, worked throughout the session to draft a bill supported by both Republicans and Democrats on the committee.
It had one problem. It had to meet the approval of the House Rules Committee, the gatekeeper to the House floor. The bill might have met the approval of the special committee. It didn’t meet the approval of the Rules Committee, which sent it back to committee demanding that campaign finance contribution limits be removed from it.
Call it the spark that lit the fire.
House Democrats declared that any measure without campaign contribution limits was not true ethics reform. They filed a discharge petition, stripping the bill from the special committee and forcing it on the House calendar. Discharge petitions are a constitutional tool lawmakers can use to move legislation. Rarely are they effective, except to generate publicity.
The tactic angered House Republican leadership, an anger that smoldered for a week, then ignited into a full-fledged conflagration Thursday.
Not only did House Majority Floor Leader Steven Tilley, a Republican from Perryville, refuse to go to the ethics legislation Democrats moved through the discharge petition, he placed it on the informal calendar, where bills go to die. Then, Speaker Richard set in motion work on another ethics bill. Ironically, Richard took the bill from his own special ethics committee and gave it to the Special Committee on General Laws. It met Thursday morning, approved the new bill in ten minutes, rules were suspended to rush the bill to the floor, setting up the possibility of great political theatre.
The theatre fell flat. The politics were sharp edged.
Republicans seemingly loaded down the bill with as many provisions Democrats hate that they could think of. There was something for everyone: voter photo ID, secret ballot union elections, even giving the Lt. Governor, the Senate President Pro Tem and the House Speaker…all Republicans…the power to sue to uphold the constitutional rights of Missourians, a thinly veiled nod to Lt. Governor Peter Kinder’s desire to file a lawsuit to prevent Missourians from having to comply with mandates in federal healthcare legislation, approved by the Democratic majority in Congress. The bill even takes a slap at Democrat Robin Carnahan, the Secretary of State, taking away responsibility to write ballot language for initiative petitions and giving it to a newly created committee.
The bill appears unconstitutional on its face, too many unrelated subjects and a provision calling for all lawmakers to undergo drug testing, which has been thrown out by the courts as an unconstitutional infringement on lawmakers’ rights.
Republicans insist it passes constitutional muster.
The House talked about the measure for a little more than an hour and a half, talked about, because no debate was allowed. Speaker Richard refused to recognize any Democrats to offer amendments. Democrats only spoke when Republicans inquired of them. Republican leadership spared little in their remarks.
Republican whip, Rep. Brian Nieves of Washington, mocked Democrats after inquiring of Minority House Leader Paul LeVota.
House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt of Blue Springs only topped his criticism of Democrats with his praise of the bill after inquiring of Democrat Jason Kander of Kansas City.
State government seldom resembles the statesman-like ideal outlined in high school civics classes. Often, it more closely resembles a high-stakes poker game. Democrats, being in the minority in the House, have fewer cards to play. They made the best play they could; a discharge petition. Republicans, in effect, responded by stating, “I’ll see your discharge petition and raise you one massive, unconstitutional bill.”
We’ll see how the game plays out the last week of the session