By Phill Brooks
A vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, John Nance Garner is given credit for coining the phrase that the vice presidency “isn’t worth a warm bucket of spit.”
Some claim he used the word p--s rather than spit. And in researching this column, I discovered there’s question as to whether Garner said either statement. Regardless of the debate about Garner’s quote, you’ve got to wonder if the same thought has not crossed the minds of some of Missouri’s lieutenant governors.
Missouri’s lieutenant governor is similar to the vice presidency — a fancy title, but a job with few real powers.
Similar to the vice president’s role as president of the U.S. Senate, Missouri’s lieutenant governor is the president of the state Senate. But legislative rules strip the lieutenant governor of the traditional powers you’d expect for a presiding officer like ruling on points of order, assigning bills to committee and appointing committee chairs.
It was Lt. Gov. Bill Phelps who forced the historic test of a lieutenant governor’s legislative powers. In 1972, Phelps campaigned as “Full-Time Phelps” with the promise that he would work full time on the job.
I remember Phelps as a feisty fellow. And almost immediately after taking office, the new Republican lieutenant governor sought to expand the traditionally limited role of his presiding powers over the Democrat-controlled Senate.
He was rebuffed in one of the most dramatic scenes I’ve seen in my decades covering Missouri’s Senate. The Senate’s top Democratic leader, Bill Cason, simply locked the lieutenant governor out of the chamber so he could not preside.
Senate staff were ordered to block access to the chamber to anyone except senators, legislative staff and reporters. Blocked that afternoon from entering the chamber to take the dais, Phelps went to the state Supreme Court.
The court eventually held that the Senate had to allow him to enter the chamber to assume his constitutional role as “ex officio president” of the Senate. But against the advice of some of his Republican colleagues, Phelps asked the court what it meant to be the chamber’s president.
The reply was that Senate rules can define those powers. So the Senate simply adopted rules and procedures that stripped the lieutenant governor of any effective powers except to vote in case of a tie.
In 2004, Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell tried to test those rules by refusing to recognize the GOP leadership, to shut off a filibuster on the last day of that year’s session. Maxwell’s actions were criticized by both Republicans and Democrats.
This is a bit of an institutional issue. Even when the lieutenant governor is of the same party as the majority in the Senate, members tend to look upon the lieutenant governor as an outsider, a representative of the executive branch.
But the lieutenant governor is not a formal member of the administration. He runs separately rather than on a ticket with the governor. And like now, there have been several times when Missouri has had a governor of one party and a lieutenant governor of another party. Current Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder’s time in the Senate pretty much is limited to opening the day’s session.
The Missouri Constitution does transfer the powers of governor, and even the governor’s salary, to the lieutenant governor anytime the governor is out of the state. But years ago, the state Supreme Court held that was an antiquated provision. The court found that provision no longer applied because it was written in an era when communication technology was so limited that a governor could not easily run the office when out of the state.
Several of the lieutenant governors I’ve covered over the decades started with high hopes they could be major players in the office.
Ken Rothman expressed confidence that he could use the office as a base for major policy initiatives after his 1980 election. Rothman seemed ideally suited to change the nature of the lieutenant governor. He had been the House speaker, in an era when that job was called the second-most powerful position in state government. He had built a solid bipartisan coalition in the House and was one of the state’s most effective speakers in recent memory.
But in the Senate, Rothman found himself largely ignored by the more conservative body, some of whose members still were bitter about his role in House-Senate legislative fights of the past.
I still clearly remember the frustrations Rothman voiced to me that even we reporters were ignoring him. The problem was that he no longer was a center of power or news.
So why run for lieutenant governor? It’s politics. It’s a position that gives one a heightened role in the party, both as a private adviser and as a public standard bearer.
And for a few, it has been a steppingstone to higher office. Tom Eagleton used it for his successful race for the U.S. Senate. So did Mel Carnahan who moved on to governor.
Many others, however, have found it a political dead end. During my time, the office represented the final state election success for Bill Morris, Phelps, Rothman, Harriet Woods, Roger Wilson, Maxwell and, so far, Kinder.
Only two of the nine lieutenant governors I have covered were elected to higher office — although Wilson moved into the governor’s chair upon Carnahan’s death.
Phill Brooks is director of the Missouri School of Journalism’s State Government Reporting Program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.