Partisanship in Senate blamed on term limits

Rush to pass bills and not getting to know each other are two reasons.
Monday, May 21, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:36 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The Senate has always prided itself on being the chamber where discussion and compromise are encouraged, but recent actions and accusations by both parties may have led to a deterioration of these ideals.

Senators on both sides of the aisle said some of the partisan behavior could be attributed to term limits.

“A lot of the animosity we’re seeing here is senators don’t have time to build relationships,” said Senate Democratic Leader Maida Coleman, of St. Louis. “People come over from the House of Representatives where there was always upheaval, and they’re clueless as to what made the Senate special.”

Fifteen years have gone by since Missouri voters passed a constitutional amendment limiting the amount of time politicians could serve in the state legislature. As time has progressed, almost no legislator remains from the “old” House and Senate.

Missouri’s term limits were approved in 1992 by a 75 percent margin. The constitutional amendment allows legislators to serve eight years in the House of Representatives and eight years in the Senate.

The state’s passage of the limits came during a nationwide push when 21 states approved some variation of the time restrictions. Several Missouri senators attributed the dropped decorum and the increasing power of special interest groups and lobbyists to term limits.

In the past, new senators were able to spend their first few years in office learning how the legislative process worked. But with an eight-year limit there is “no more luxury of sitting back and learning the process,” Coleman said.

“People are coming in with a mission to make their party look good without legislative know-how, and they’re susceptible to making big mistakes,” she said. With such a short amount of time, senators don’t have a chance to “grow on one another,” Coleman said.

“It has changed the culture a lot; it’s more contentious than it used to be,” said Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County. “There is less interest in working together.”

The effects of term limits did not become apparent until 2002, when the first round of senators was phased out. The turnover resulted in 12 new senators, a 35 percent change in the chamber.

In 2008, five current senators will be ineligible to run for re-election.

“Before term limits new senators could sit and soak in the process, I don’t have time to sit back, I promised my constituents I’d hit the ground running,” said Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.

Justus recently completed her first session.

According to a 2005 study released by MU’s Truman School of Public Policy, the average legislative experience of a Missouri senator was only 3.4 years. When term limits were passed, proponents claimed limiting legislative careers would remove legislators who had been in office too long and would provide more diversity in the legislature.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, said this was one good result of the limits and said legislators are more careful about what they do after hours and about what legislation they pass because they could be removed more easily by their constituents.

The Truman School of Public Policy study states however, “Term limits have almost no effect on competition faced by incumbents in either party.” The study also states there is increased competition for legislative seats when there is no incumbent running.

Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, said term limits have a negative effect because they have made the Senate more partisan.

Coleman said this could be attributed to the rush senators feel to pass legislation that is important to them and their districts before they leave.

Loudon was recently criticized for inserting midwifery language into a large bill and not alerting other legislators before it was passed and sent to the governor. Loudon has been a strong proponent of midwifery for many years and will reach his term limit at the end of the next session.

The senator denied that he inserted the language because he is so close to being forced to leave and said, “When you’re facing a special interest group, you get around it when you can.” In response to Loudon’s actions, senators spent hours accusing him of being untrustworthy, a move some senators said would not have happened before term limits.

Bartle said that under the “old” Senate, problems had to be resolved quickly because “you might be working with that person for the next 30 years.”

Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin said many Senate members viewed the actions as trickery.

Callahan agreed and said, “There’s so little trust in here.” Much of the legislative process does not occur on the Senate floor but in behind-the-scenes negotiations where both parties try to streamline legislation before it hits the Senate floor.

Justus said that’s not happening anymore because of term limits. Justus said that in her one session in the Senate she found it difficult to reach compromises as a member of the minority party. She said because Democrats were not always involved in negotiations, the only resource she felt she was left with was to talk.

Justus participated in a Democrat-led filibuster in March on the proposed MOHELA sale. In response, Republican leaders forced a vote on the issue and withdrew money for a construction project on the UMKC campus, which is in Justus’ district.

The parliamentary procedure used to force the vote has been used only a handful of times in the last few decades, including on five issues since term limits took effect. In the 2007 legislative session, the procedure was used on an unprecedented three issues, including two on the last day of the session.

“It’s a tool that’s existed in the rules for decades,” said President Pro Tem Mike Gibbons, R-St. Louis County. “What is free and fair about a handful of people holding back the will of Missouri’s citizens?”

Gibbons said some conflict is necessary to the legislative process.

“I’m not interested in tyranny of the majority or tyranny of the minority,” Gibbons said.

Nevertheless, Gibbons acknowledged that the loss of legislators who have worked together for decades had hurt the Senate.

“When you have people who served together for 30, 40 years ... that certainly would create a different environment. Today, the turnover happens pretty quickly,” Gibbons said.

Some senators have become distressed by the power gained by special interest groups and lobbyists since the passage of term limits, said Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County.

“Political contributions and special interest groups have become the avenue of reason, not public policy,” he said. “Special interest dictates what goes on in this body.”

Loudon agreed and said that skilled legislators could stand up to lobbyists and know who was honest, but with the little legislative experience held by most senators, lobbyists are being used to gain legislative knowledge.

Gibbons said despite the concerns raised by legislators, there is no plan to repeal term limits. Only two of the 21 states that have term limits have repealed them.

“I think it’s the times; things are different now,” Gibbons said.

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