By Phill Brooks
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
George Washington once described the Senate as being like a saucer in which you pour coffee or tea.
“We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it,” he is quoted as telling Thomas Jefferson.
The idea was that longer terms for senators along with statewide districts would lead to a more deliberative process than in the House. It would cool down the heat to pass legislation.
Although Washington’s quote is cited in the U.S. Senate’s official website, it has been disputed. Two pages on the Senate’s website have conflicting accounts of the statement.
Yet the quote reflects our Founding Fathers’ vision that the smaller upper chamber would be the place where the rush to pass something was slowed down for more thoughtful consideration by legislators who were less vulnerable to local political pressures.
But in 2013, Missouri’s Senate acted on some issues more like a glass with no saucer at all.
Some of the session’s biggest issues were rushed through the Senate with limited debate — or at least far less debate than similar issues would have triggered in the years before legislative term limits.
One of the biggest tax cuts in recent generations cleared the Senate with just one day’s debate and less than half an hour of consideration by the Senate’s budget-control committee.
With similar speed, the Senate dealt with a major package of tax breaks for business.
The Medicaid expansion proposal, the centerpiece of Gov. Jay Nixon’s legislative agenda, never got to the Senate. Instead, the bill was killed in the House without a debate after the Senate’s GOP leader declared the idea dead.
But what really surprised me was how quickly the Senate signed on to $88 million in projects to expand and improve office space for legislators and other officials in Jefferson City. The deal was put together with the governor’s office and rushed through the legislature in just over a week. The spending plan got less than one hour of debate in the Senate. There was no extended discussion about holding off until next year to give more thought about the state’s budget needs.
There was limited debate about other funding priorities but no mention of the shortfall of more than $400 million for the school-funding formula that the Legislature itself had established to ensure equity in education for Missouri kids.
At other times, however, the Senate remained slow and plodding, embodying Washington’s saucer. Filibusters still occurred, killing bills. Late-night sessions had to be scheduled to get work done.
On Monday of the final week, a night-long filibuster stalled action on a bill easing prevailing wage rate requirements for government contracts. The next day, a night-long filibuster blocked a vote on a tax increase for highways.
Throughout the year until the last day of the session, the Senate maintained its demand for the House to approve reducing tax breaks to real estate developers as a condition for tax breaks for other types of businesses.
That was a surprise to me. I had expected the Senate to behave more like the House this year in support of real estate development tax credits. After all, more than half of the Senate, including more than half of the GOP members, had recently been in the House.
Just three years ago, the Senate’s current GOP leader, Ron Richard, was House speaker. In that role, he was a forceful voice against major cuts in tax credits for real estate developers. He said tax breaks for construction of low-income housing and renovation of historic buildings were key to local economic development.
The Senate’s continued stance for significant cuts in those tax credits would suggest that term limits have not completely converted the Senate into a mini-House, as many longtime traditionalists have feared.
Maybe there is something to the idea that the structure of a Senate, independent of its actual members, makes it a different body from the House. With members serving larger districts, maybe it promotes more of a statewide rather than local perspective. And with senators serving longer terms, four years rather than two, maybe there’s less political pressure.
If so, that’s exactly what our Founding Fathers had in mind.
So remember, whenever you get frustrated by the seemingly endless debate that sometimes dragged on past midnight, the Missouri Senate was doing exactly what the creators of our governmental system intended.
With adjournment of the 2013 legislative session, this column will take a summer break. I’ll be back next fall providing you with a historical perspective to the issues and events of Missouri’s state government.
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 a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since Warren Hearnes.