Capitol Perspectives: Rethinking Missouri Senate filibusters

April 15, 2022 5:45 am

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

After so many decades covering the legislative process, I’ve gained an appreciation about Senate filibusters.

So many times, I’ve seen benefits from the power of a senator or two to speak for as long as possible to delay hasty action.

Filibusters can be effective tools to forge compromises that sometimes involve other issues before the legislature.

A filibuster also can provide an opportunity for a private discussion of key players to find a solution on a difficult issue.

On the day I finished this column, Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, provided his Senate colleagues with one of the most powerful descriptions I’ve heard in the Senate about gay discrimination even though his amendment went nowhere.

Beyond that, often in years past, these filibusters could be downright entertaining and humorous intended to cool tensions.

Traditionally, filibusters have been defended as a mechanism to prevent tyranny by the chamber’s majority on issues of public policy controversy.

George Washington was quoted describing the new U.S. Senate as like a saucer to cool tea. “We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it,” he was quoted as telling Thomas Jefferson.

This year’s many filibusters by the seven-member conservative caucus of Republicans has caused me to reconsider my thoughts.

Without the votes to achieve their congressional redistricting proposal designed to gain a Republican district, they used the filibuster to block almost any other action by the Senate.

Filibustering the start of the day’s session to stall routine approval of the prior day’s journal struck me as extreme.

This year's many filibusters by the seven-member conservative caucus of Republicans has caused me to reconsider my thoughts.

The Senate leadership shares some of the blame.

Their decision to exclude the GOP conservative caucus senators from a GOP caucus meeting in December likely fueled the animosity.

It seems to me that legislative term limits are a major factor in the Senate’s filibuster melt down.

More than half of the Senate conservative caucus members have two years or less left in the Senate.

Before term limits, senators had so many years in the chamber that they developed oratory skills that made their filibusters downright entertaining rather than hostile or preaching to one another.

I often told my statehouse journalism students that covering the statehouse was like going to a circus without needing a ticket.

Beyond that, the extended years of service in the Senate restrained disruptive attacks because of the deep friendships that led to more respectful behavior by colleagues.

But without those years of relationships, so what if a senator angers colleagues?

Term limits also leave a term-limited legislator with fewer years to achieve a legislative legacy or gain public attention for a future campaign.

That might be a more significant factor in the current election year.

In the era before term limits, there also was the danger that challenging the leadership could have consequences for future assignments.

This all has made me think it may be time to reconsider Senate filibuster rules.

The Senate did adopt a rule change this year to require 10 rather than five signatures on a written motion to end debate and force a vote. Like the House, approval requires a majority of the chamber.

But the Senate has a long-term tradition that makes a “cloture” vote by the majority party against a majority party member nearly impossible.

In contrast, the Missouri House majority leader routinely makes successful motions to shut off extended debates. It makes the House process far more efficient.

This year’s Senate filibusters may have lasting effects.

The redistricting conservative filibusters contributed to the legislature’s failure to come up with a congressional redistricting map before the deadline to file for office which could be a possible issue for court intervention.

Further, these filibusters might leave a legacy that it’s OK for a filibuster to block all Senate action rather than just the issue in contention.

That danger was demonstrated more than two decades ago when Democrats lost majority control of the Senate.

Democrats responded with almost constant filibusters which one Democrat leader confided simply were intended to limit how many GOP conservative issues could get passed before the legislature’s constitutional deadline.

As an aside, this column was inspired by a PBS special about one of our nation’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin.

The program described how Franklin was a leader in forging compromises between battling factions of delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

Maybe Missouri’s Senate needs a modern-day Benjamin Franklin.

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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.