Sudden Silence

The Capitol dozes.

The halls are cool and quiet. Lobbyists are not clustered in the third floor rotunda talking about the next moves in the chess game that is the legislative process. The hum of conversation, the din of school children mixed with voices of busloads of people in the building for lobbying day on their interest has largely disappeared. Exhibits promoting this or that cause or issue are gone. Rallies on the south steps or in the first floor rotunda have ended. The pressure is off. The tension is gone. The heat of the competition of ideas has disappeared.

It is quiet enough to hear the echoes of footsteps.

The legislature will not be back this afternoon. Its work in the regular session is finished.

The capitol is inanimate steel and brick, stone and glass. But from early January until mid May every year it has a pulse. It is filled with hope, passion, and conflict. The people who serve in the House and the Senate and the representatives of dozens of special interests of which all of us are a part become a living presence that brings the inanimate structure to life. And then, abruptly at 6 p.m. on a May Friday, it all goes away. Various people rate the session good or bad including the lawmakers who were at the center of all of this drama. Winners and losers are pronounced and vary depending on the viewpoint of the judges.

The key question at the end of every legislative session is, were the people served?

That’s always a difficult question to answer. An additional question and one perhaps more important is whether the people care if they were served. Did the drawing of new congressional districts really matter to Joe and Josephine Missouri as much as they mattered to Russ Carnahan, Sam Graves, and Emanuel Cleaver? Did the revision of the voter-passed dog breeder’s law make any difference to people other than dog breeders and those who want to buy a pet? Did the failure of an overhaul of the tax credit system tough the lives of enough Missourians for them to be bothered by that failure?

Do Missourians really care whether the St. Louis police department is controlled by its own locally-selected board or by a board appointed by the governor? Does anybody care other than those caught up in the political passions of the moment that four Senate democrats chewed up a lot of time trying to send a message to Washington?

What these people did or failed to do in the last four and a half months matters. To them. And in one way or another to all of us although we might feel the touch of their efforts only lightly if at all. If we don’t live near a corporate hog farm; if we don’t contemplate a late-term abortion; if we don’t worry about tax credits for our business; if nuclear power plant location does not ignite one kind of fear and uncertainty or another within us; if Congress is so abstract in our minds that our representative in that body is immaterial as we live our daily lives, then what happened in the capitol in these four and a half months is not something we dwell on.

The biggest realization that the legislature has changed something in your life might not come until you vote in the municipal elections of 2013. You might have to have a photo identification card to prove you are who you are even though the judges at your precinct are your neighbors. But even that’s not a sure thing. Before you have to do that in 2013, you as a voter has to approve a constitutional amendment in 2012 allowing the law already passed to go into effect for the 2013 elections.

Something that happened at the capitol in these last few months matters. To somebody, probably you.

That’s why the Missourinet and our colleagues in the capitol press corps take this long and exhausting ride every year.

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