Capitol Perspectives: Dealing with government disruptions
Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson concludes his defense prior to the House of Representatives voting to expel him on partisan lines for disrupting the House floor in protest of the state’s lax gun laws (John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout).
Missouri represents an interesting perspective for the vote of Tennessee’s House to expel two of its members for disrupting a legislative session trying to highlight firearm issues.
As far as I can discover, Missouri has expelled just two House members in the state’s long history.
The first was in 1865 when Rep. John Sampson was expelled by the House for “treasonable conduct” because he chaired an 1861 meeting in Callaway County that endorsed secession and the Confederacy.
The second was in 2021 when the House expelled Rep. Rick Roeber for allegations by his children of sexual abuse before his election.
In both cases, the House rejected efforts of the two members to resign and avoid a recorded House action that cited their transgression.
More often, however, Missouri has pursued alternatives to ousting an elected misbehaving legislator.
Last year Sen. Mike Moon was stripped of committee assignments for wearing overalls in the Senate violating unwritten Senate dress rules. His committee assignments were restored after he apologized to the Senate.
In 2017, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal was censured, but not expelled, by the Missouri Senate for a social media post that she hoped for the death of President Donald Trump.
In 1995, Sen. Jet Banks entered the Senate with holsters holding toy pistols in a display of opposition to a bill legalizing concealed weapons. Although he probably violated Senate rules by using a prop on the Senate floor, I remember the humor expressed by many Senators.
Twenty-three religious leaders were arrested in 2014 when they disrupted the Missouri Senate in a protest in the visitor’s gallery supporting Medicaid expansion. Although fined, they subsequently were pardoned by Gov. Jay Nixon.
I confess my perspective about this issue is influenced by decades covering the governmental process involving emotionally divisive issues including civil rights and the Vietnam War.
In those earlier years, civil disobedience was a frequent tactic.
But rather than trying to shut down the governmental process as happened in Tennessee, government was seen as the vehicle to enact stronger civil rights laws and end the Vietnam War.
In fact, Pres. Lyndon Johnson won congressional approval for a major civil rights law that those protesters of years earlier had advocated.
Having spent my entire adult life covering Congress and the Missouri General Assembly, I understand rules that help civilize a riotous governmental process that brought down so many governments in other countries over the centuries.
In Missouri, the two chambers have strict rules on behavior and dress. During a chamber discussion, a legislator cannot even refer to another member by name. Instead, a legislator must refer to a member’s district number or residence, such as the “gentle lady from Jackson County” or the “gentleman from St. Louis.”
Violating that rule can bring a swift rebuke from the presiding officer.
While I initially considered those rules obtuse, I grew to understand how it helped reinforce respect for colleagues and the process.
I realized the Missouri those legislative rules of respect, politeness and collegiality fostered legislative relationships for bipartisan collaboration on so many issues.
In contrast, a bullhorn used by one of the Tennessee legislators to obstruct the legislative process would be unimaginable in Missouri or the U.S. Congress I covered for NPR.
There is another fascinating contrast between the two states.
Like Tennessee, St. Louis area school suffered fatalities by an intruder armed with an assault-style rifle this year.
And like Tennessee, as I write this column, Missouri’s Republican-controlled House has sidelined many of the measures for stronger firearm restrictions by not even assigning them to committee.
Although a few bills like tax exemptions for firearms, stronger provisions for school safety staff and court-protection orders on firearms were assigned to committee.
But unlike Tennessee, Missouri Democrat legislators have complied with legislative rules on behavior in the chamber.
I cannot end this column without reference to the 2016 sit-in on the U.S. House floor by the now-deceased Rep. John Lewis calling for stronger firearm controls.
It led House Speaker Paul Ryan to accuse Democrats of throwing the House into chaos and threatening democracy.
It’s an indication of how divisive this issue has been for American democracy.
It will be interesting to see which approach, confrontation or collaborative collegiality, ultimately achieves success — particularly with the recent mass firearm killings since the Tennessee protest.
In a way, the protestors achieved a degree of success by generating national attention by expulsion and their firearms issue.
And both members quickly were reinstated on an interim basis by their local governments.
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