The profound change in Missouri’s legislature


This column is prompted by a question from a long-time statehouse observer as to why Missouri’s legislature has become so divided.

My answer involved the number of changes in the statehouse over the decades. A major cause has been the deep and growing ideological divide for the public and elected public officials.

Years ago, a significant number of Democrats were highly conservative while there were Republicans who supported traditionally liberal causes. To understand this more partisan environment, think about the questions now at the forefront of public discourse such as last year’s election results and COVID-19.

Except for abortion, I cannot remember in my earlier years so many emotional “wedge” issues dominating state government.

Wedge issues are used to divide the public and used on social media outlets to grow audiences.

But COVID-19 has demonstrated another aspect to this issue — an internal division among Republicans between personal freedoms, public safety and local government authority.

That conflict was apparent in Gov. Mike Parson’s State of the State address.

While Parson spoke strongly against state government COVID-19 mandates, he also said: “I firmly believe that the people should have a say through their local elected representatives and not dictated by needless executive action by one person.”

But sitting in the House chamber listening to the address were two Republican unelected state officials appointed by Parson to fill vacancies who have put significant pressure on local officials against COVID-19 mandates, particularly school districts governed by locally elected school boards.

The suits by Republican state Attorney General Eric Schmitt to sue public schools and State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick threatening approval for lower-interest bond issues by public schools would have been unimaginable in decades past when local control was a deep philosophical foundation for the Republicans I covered.

The eight-year limit on serving in a legislative chamber has provided fertile ground for the growth of ideological divisions in the legislature. Short terms forces legislators to seek higher office years before time to accomplish broad and extensive legislative success records upon which to run.

That makes wedge-issue positions more important to win, particularly in primary campaigns.

But that is just one consequence of term limits.

Limited legislative service limits lawmakers from developing the close cross-party alliances and friendships that were a major factor in the era before term limits.

In earlier years, many senators would call the chamber a family.

Like any family, there were strong disagreements.

Think about your own family if you have kin with different political or ideological views. For most, family bonds are more important.

That was true in the legislature I covered before term limits, particularly in the Senate. One of the major impacts from term limits has been the loss of institutional knowledge about the complicated issues facing lawmakers.

In decades past, long-term legislators had time to develop sources in state agencies who became private back channels of information about what really was happening in the administration.

It was a two-way street because those agency sources gained trust with a legislator to help the lawmaker better understand the complexity of issues that might conflict with party position.

Now, however, I suspect the limited terms for legislators constrain those relationships with government experts who have far more years of statehouse experience than legislators of today.

A similar constraint may involve lobbyists.

While many lobbyists are paid to represent the their clients’ financial interests, some lobbyists will confide balanced information. But it requires time to develop confidence of confidentiality. That is definitely true with statehouse reporters as I’m sure it is with legislators.

To summarize, the growth of ideological divides, wedge issues, social media and term limits are among the factors that I think address the question raised by my long-time friend.

But three issues provide a more positive note.

One is the congressional redistricting map approved by the Republican-controlled House that would preserve Missouri’s two Black Democratic congressional seats despite some Republican pressure for a 9-1 GOP congressional majority.

The other involves local COVID-19 restrictions. Both last year and this year, there have been significant Republican legislative efforts to find a middle ground that transcend ideological wedge-issue divisions.

The Republican-controlled legislature sidelining last year an effort to strip Planned Parenthood from Medicaid funding in order to maintain full funding for Medicaid is another.

These issues remain for this year’s session, so we’ll see if compromise is possible.

But thinking about those issues, I keep hearing in my head Bob Dylan’s 1964 optimistic song “The Times They Are A-Changin.”

(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).