Capitol Perspectives: How Missouri controls filibusters

April 2, 2021 11:33 am

A view of the Missouri Senate chamber from the visitors gallery (photo courtesy of the Missouri Senate).

The debate about changing U.S. Senate filibuster rules demonstrates how different that chamber is from Missouri’s Senate.

Missouri Senate rules make it more difficult to kill a bill by a filibuster.

Unlike the U.S. Senate, a filibustering Missouri senator must maintain the floor, although the floor can be yielded to a colleague to grab a meal or take a nap.

Without support from colleagues, a one-senator filibuster is doomed.

That was demonstrated in 2007 when Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, launched a one-person filibuster to block confirmation of a University of Missouri curator nominee who supported embryonic stem cell research.

With no support from fellow Republicans, Bartle stood alone for 17 hours before abandoning his futile effort against the Republican governor’s nominee.

Another major difference is that unlike the super-majority vote required in the U.S. Senate to stop a filibuster, it takes just a majority of Missouri Senator.

You know a filibuster will end when a majority party leader walks around the chamber showing minority party members the written motion to shut off debate signed by majority party members.

Actually, many Missouri filibusters are not designed to kill a specific bill before the chamber.

Some are launched to force a compromise or to demonstrate to special interests that opponents really tried to block the vote.

For a while after Republicans gained control of the Senate, some Democrats would filibuster simply to slow down the process to run out time for the pile of Republican bills awaiting a vote before the session’s mandatory adjournment.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, confessed to me she had launched a filibuster against a colleague’s bill just to get even about something unrelated to the bill before the chamber.

Years earlier, senators like Richard Webster, R-Carthage, and Danny Staples, D-Eminence, launched entertaining Senate performances just to calm tensions or to have fun.

So many times Staples would tell tall tales about his childhood horse Trixe.

Four decades ago, Sen. Clifford Jones, R-St. Louis County, demonstrated that even a “talking filibuster” was not necessary,

His filibuster came during the historic, first live broadcast of the Missouri Senate during debate on the death penalty.

Because the state’s top rated radio station, KMOX, was broadcasting the debate, senators rose to make long-winded, self-serving grandstand speeches that had little to do with the actual bill before the chamber.

To demonstrate his annoyance with his colleagues, when Jones was recognized to speak, he did not.

Instead he rose and silently pantomimed with arm and hand gestures for minutes on end.

As Bob Hardy and I filled the silence, I explained to listeners that Jones was not mocking our broadcast, but his own colleagues.

As far as I know, no Senator since has tried to control the Senate with a “songs of silence” filibuster.

Also decades ago, I experienced a demonstration of a frivolous filibuster when a group of senior senators launched a filibuster as a birthday present for my wife.

Lori was in the Capitol so we quickly could go to dinner to celebrate her birthday after the Senate adjourned the evening session.

During a short recess, I introduced her to a group of senators I regularly covered.

Learning she was a political science major in college, they promised a birthday present. I expected it would be a short recognition of her sitting in the visitors’ gallery overlooking the Senate.

But it turned out to be a filibuster attacking Democrat Gov. Warren Hearnes and Republican Attorney General John Danforth on a completely false charge of political chicanery.

Sitting at the Senate floor press table, I was too embarrassed to respond to my colleagues’ speculations about what was going on.

Because of these incidents I regularly told my students that covering the Senate was like going to a circus without purchasing a ticket.

But I sense the growing partisan and ideological tensions have diminished the frivolity of filibusters that made Missouri’s Senate such an entertaining arena for both members and reporters.

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Phill Brooks
Phill Brooks

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.