Dysfunctional, gridlocked Senate dominates Missouri’s 2022 legislative session
Republican infighting in the Missouri Senate often got in the way of passing bills, including many of the majority party’s priorities — like restrictions on abortion medication, diversity curriculum in schools, and transgender athletes in sports.
Republican Sen. Dan Hegeman, who just finished his 19th session in the Missouri General Assembly, has seen a lot over the years, but rarely anything like this session’s intense fighting among his Republican colleagues.
“The Senate works differently today than it has in the past. It seems like more rancor,” the senator from northwest Missouri said.
Discord within the Senate dominated the 2022 session, with tensions often boiling over between a majority of Republicans and a more conservative GOP group that clashed with the party's leadership. The tension had legislative consequences, including an epic deadlock over congressional redistricting and the demise of numerous GOP priorities.
While 2022 wasn’t a complete bust in terms of accomplishments, House and Senate leaders believe that things need to change in 2023.
Whether that happens will be influenced by term limits and runs for other offices ushering some of the more experienced legislators out the door.
“I’ve heard it said that politics is Hollywood for ugly people,” said state Rep. Jason Chipman, a Steelville Republican. “And I think people get up here and get an overinflated sense of themselves. And you have a lot of people in the rotunda pushing a narrative, ‘Oh you’re the best, you’re the greatest.’ But really they have clients to serve.”
Senators had difficulty getting along
Senate Republicans are divided between lawmakers who are close to leadership and the Conservative Caucus, which often uses the filibuster to change the trajectory of certain policies. While these two sides clashed in previous sessions, 2022 was the year the divide became more noticeable.
During the last week of session, several members of the Conservative Caucus began filibustering a bill from Sen. Holly Rehder — a Scott County Republican who has often publicly called out that caucus’ tactics. And during an exchange over the legislation with Lake Saint Louis Sen. Bob Onder, Sen. Elaine Gannon, R-DeSoto, let it be known that she’d had enough of the Conservative Caucus’ influence on the chamber.
“We only have a matter of hours left and most of the people in this room are fed up,” Gannon said to Onder, a member of the Conservative Caucus. “And everyone in here knows who we’re fed up with.”
After the passage of a congressional map that the Conservative Caucus held up for months, Rehder excoriated the caucus as lawmakers who chased clout on social media while ignoring vexing issues in the state such as poverty and drug abuse. The caucus generally consisted of seven of the GOP's 24 senators. (There are 10 Democratic senators.)
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, who was often the target of Conservative Caucus ire, acknowledged that the session wasn’t easy.
“You know it’s no secret that this place was ugly at times,” Rowden said. “There were days where I frankly went home embarrassed. Because, for better or worse, I knew I was part of the problem.”
Onder, who is departing the Senate due to term limits and is running for St. Charles County executive, said there’s been “a lot of mistrust, a lot of dirty tricks in the course of this session — and last session too.”
“And to see the majority caucus do that to their own members is very disappointing,” Onder said.
Redistricting impasses consumed a lot of oxygen
Without question, redrawing Missouri’s eight congressional districts exacerbated tensions among Republicans.
There were many reasons why the legislature took so long to complete work on what should have been a relatively straightforward exercise, especially since the GOP controls the governorship and both legislative chambers. Fights erupted over whether to target Kansas City Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, where to put military bases and how fast-growing St. Charles and Jefferson counties should be represented.
Ultimately, lawmakers passed a 6-2 Republican majority map on the second-to-last day of session that made the 2nd Congressional District more Republican by adding part of Warren County and all of Franklin County. But the experience left a lot of lawmakers with a bad taste in their mouths. It didn’t help matters that a number of legislators in both chambers were running for the same congressional seats that they were voting on.
“One of the reasons I decided not to run for Congress is I’ve seen way too often in this place people who get elected and they immediately shift their focus to what they think their next constituency will be,” said Rowden, who passed on seeking the open 4th District seat. “And so you find in that situation people that frankly become an entirely different person."
Chipman said redistricting inflamed animosities that had been building for a while, comparing it to a “pressure pot” waiting to explode.
“Most members are not around to experience redistricting more than once,” Chipman said. “So they see it as their opportunity to really affect how things are at a national level. Because there’s so much of what we do where we can’t affect national politics. Yes, we get to vote. Yes, we can send resolutions to our federal delegation. But other than that, redistricting is really where we can make our mark on the federal level.”
Senate adjourning early killed several GOP priorities
One consequence of not passing the congressional map until Thursday evening, besides making life a lot harder for local election officials, was that the Senate chose to adjourn a day early.
That decision meant several policy initiatives that Republicans in both chambers coveted died, including:
- Efforts to make constitutional amendments harder to pass.
- A ballot item that could have led to the defunding of Medicaid expansion.
- Further restrictions on abortion, including efforts to curtail what’s known as “self-managed” pill abortions and a ballot item aimed at protecting the state’s trigger law.
- Legislation barring transgender girls from participating in girls' sports.
- Efforts to block diversity curriculum in schools.
Lawmakers also failed to legalize sports betting, which isn’t necessarily a partisan issue but is something that’s popular with residents, as well as backed by the state’s professional sports teams.
While noting that lawmakers did pass legislation resurrecting the state’s photo identification requirement to vote, Sen. Bill Eigel, a Conservative Caucus member from St. Charles County, was disappointed in the output of the GOP-led chamber.
“It was a mess in terms of Republican values and fiscal conservatism,” said Eigel.
This outcome, though, benefited House and Senate Democrats who fought some of the Republican priorities.
When asked how he navigated a Senate chamber where Republicans were fighting all the time, Sen. Brian Williams replied: “Most of the time you sit back and watch.”
“But the Senate is a very small and deliberate body,” said Williams, D-University City. “So it’s important that you maintain relationships. And I think a lot of gridlocks and meltdowns that we’ve seen this year have been because of a lack of relationships and trust.”
Democrats made their mark where they could
For Missouri’s legislative Democrats, 2022 did feature some policy wins — especially when it came to the state’s budget.
Thanks to an influx of money, including funds from the federal American Rescue Plan, Democrats were able to work with the GOP in funding a host of key priorities. Williams, for instance, was able to help secure tens of millions of dollars for St. Louis County — including $6 million to help demolish the abandoned Jamestown Mall in Florissant.
“They won’t remember the fighting, they may not even remember who fought for the funding,” Williams said. “But they will be able to benefit from the investments. And to see a community where I come from get investment, I’m very proud to be a part of that process.”
But one of the realities of being in the super-minority is Democrats can’t stop everything. They weren’t able to prevent a voter photo ID requirement from passing. And they couldn’t keep Republicans from transforming the 2nd Congressional District into more GOP-friendly turf.
Yet Democrats did secure one redistricting win when Republicans steered clear of dismantling Cleaver’s 5th District — giving both the veteran congressman and any Kansas City Democrat who may want to replace him breathing room for the next 10 years.
“Obviously we’d like to see the 2nd District be more competitive, because it is more competitive,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence.
The composition of both chambers isn’t likely to change in a meaningful way after the 2022 election, but there is a possibility that House Democrats could expand their numbers thanks to a new state redistricting plan approved earlier this year.
More fighting on the horizon?
A new wave of personalities and leaders will be in place for the 2023 legislative session because of either term limits or lawmakers deciding to not run for their seats again.
A lot of what occurs next could depend on who wins competitive Republican primaries for state Senate seats — or whether sitting members of the Senate survive challenges for another term.
Regardless of who actually sits in those seats, Chipman contends the revolving door nature of legislative service is a big source of the problems that often bedevil the legislature.
“We’re all trying to hit home runs,” Chipman said. “Because of that, we all have competing priorities. And we let our egos get in the way. … So, we think our ideas are better than everybody else’s and somebody will wield their authority within their office to make sure their priorities get pushed out there first to the detriment of everyone else.”
Still, Chipman noted that 2022 was not as crazy as other sessions he’s experienced — including the 2015 resignation of House Speaker John Diehl and the demise of Eric Greitens’ governorship during the 2018 session.
“It’s not been the worst that I’ve seen,” he said.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum