Capitol Perspectives: Bringing Order to the Missouri House
By Phill Brooks
Missouri's House took an unusual step this year in an effort to bring more order to the legislative process.
The House adopted a rule that limits a member next year from sponsoring more than 20 bills in a session, with a few exceptions such as the House Budget chair who sponsors all the governor's budget bills.
If implemented, it might bring more order to a legislative process I have found to become increasingly chaotic and less conducive to a more deliberative and thoughtful discussion because of the growing number of bills sponsored by legislators.
This year, more bills were introduced into the legislature than at any time in the past 37 years.
This flood of bills swamps legislative staff who must prepare descriptions for each bill and fiscal notes estimating the impact of each bill on state finances.
It also creates a burden on state agency staff who provide information for the fiscal notes.
Among legislators themselves I have little doubt that this growing legislative tidal wave makes thoughtful deliberation more difficult.
I suspect it makes it more difficult for legislative leaders and committee chairs to set priorities with so many legislators filing so many bills taking up committee time and attention.
I understand the pressure because it's similar to the struggle journalists face setting priorities for attention to bills that could have a real impact and a chance in the legislative process.
Over the decades, there have been several efforts to address the growing deluge of bills, but with limited success.
With Missouri having one of the largest state lower chambers in the country, an early proposal was to reduce the number of House members. But that idea went nowhere.
While some House members were concerned about losing their seats in consolidated districts, I heard compelling arguments that House districts with smaller populations are more conducive to personal interaction between a House member and the member's constituents.
That argument continues to be demonstrated by the number of bills and amendments prompted by constituent problems and complaints about government.
There also have been efforts to limit the number of bills committees could report to the full chamber for debate. But those efforts have had limited impact.
Legislative term limits are factor in this legislative tidal wave
With just eight years in a legislative chamber, there is greater pressure for a member to establish a legislative record of success to seek higher office.
Success can be claimed by bragging rights about the number of bills sponsored to appeal to voters and special interests.
In fact, over the years some legislators seeking higher office have been among the most prolific bill sponsors.
Also, a few lobbyists have confessed that they can claim success just by getting legislation introduced sought by a client, even if the bill goes nowhere.
One solution might be to return to the practice of extended committee hearings and deliberations before the formal legislative session begins.
Without the pressure of near daily chamber sessions and a mountain of introduced bills awaiting committee hearings, interim committee sessions provided more time for deeper exploration of the major issues of statewide importance.
It helped set priorities and provided a greater opportunity to reach compromises for the regular session.
Maybe the new House rule will help this process return to a better focus on what are achievable objectives in a relative short legislative session.
But I have doubts.
The House rule does not govern the Senate. And in both chambers, members are free to offer as many floor amendments as they desire that takes up staff time and legislative attention.
Beyond that, this year only eight of the 163 House members have introduced more than 20 bills, but one of those eight is the House Budget chair whose only bills involve budget matters.
If every House member introduced 20 measures, it would total 3,260 proposals -- far higher than the 2,224 introduced into the House this year.
One statehouse reporter suggested that the 20-measure limit actually could be a challenge to match by some legislators.
[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 an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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