Bipartisan calls have hollow ring

Monday, January 10, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- On opening day of the legislative session, the Missouri House speaker looked down from the dais at the scores of seated lawmakers and issued a call for cooperation.

The first thing "that should be cut is all the partisan fighting," the speaker implored while referring specifically to budget battles of the past. Then to the governor, the speaker offered: "I am extending a hand. Let's leave last year's fights to last year."

That was Jan. 7, 2004. The House speaker was Republican Catherine Hanaway.

Three weeks later, as Democratic Gov. Bob Holden repeatedly criticized Republican lawmakers in his State of the State address, Republican Rep. Rod Jetton of Marble Hill interrupted by shouting at Holden. It was a highly unusual break from decorum that came to symbolize a highly partisan legislative session.

Now flash forward a year.

It's Jan. 5, 2005, and the Missouri House speaker is again looking down from that dais, again issuing a call for bipartisanship.

"I have seen too much partisan fighting and not enough working together on the issues affecting Missouri citizens," the speaker says to applause. "We should be proud of our party, but we should never let our party or our interest in getting elected overshadow what is best for the state of Missouri."

Again, more applause.

This time, the House speaker is Jetton.

What do we make of this transformation?

Are lawmakers finally, really serious about bipartisanship this year? Or is it mere rhetoric?

Without discounting the possibility of a bipartisan breakthrough, history would suggest cooperative words tend to be hollow -- or, at the very least, difficult to fulfill -- in a state legislature.

Conflict is an almost inherent part of a democratic process, especially when one political party holds a slim majority over the other, as has been the case recently in Missouri.

In the closely divided Minnesota Legislature, the fighting became so bad that about 75 senators and representatives voluntarily attended a workshop last weekend titled "Beyond Bickering and Gridlock."

Former longtime Missouri lawmakers, now displaced by term limits, have bemoaned what they describe as a general decline in courtesy among lawmakers. Political veterans from other states have observed the same thing.

Part of the reason may be that the same "red state/blue state" divide seen in the presidential election also exists within states. Nationwide, there are 3,660 Democratic state legislators and 3,656 Republican state legislators.

But in Missouri, Republicans have widened the legislative majorities they first won a few years ago. Now Republicans outnumber Democrats 97-65 in the House and 23-11 in the Senate -- creating a situation where the majority could more easily roll over the minority. Or, perhaps, the situation will give the majority the political security needed to more graciously reach out to the minority, as Jetton espouses.

In a position to make good on his talk, Jetton is pledging rule changes that allow equal debate time for Republicans and Democrats -- changes made more plausible because term limits have cleared the House of anyone long-accustomed to the tradition of unlimited debate.

Jetton believes term limits can help foster -- not hinder -- cooperation.

"All too often in the past, partisan politics stifled good policies," Jetton said. "Term limits has given us a unique opportunity to put the past behind us. Let's pledge to forget the partisan past and build new bonds of bipartisan friendship that will carry us into the future."

That comment, by the way, is from Jetton's speech to lawmakers on Jan. 8, 2003.

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