Understanding The Inner Workings of Missouri Special Sessions

The two big terms floating around Missouri politics these days seem to be career politicians and special session. Both of which nab headlines and conjure up feelings of dysfunctional government. Is one becoming the cause of the other? The constitution, after all, is designed to ensure a citizen legislature. In the Missouri legislature, there are two mechanisms in place to prevent state legislators having their service turn into a career. 

The first is term limits. Both the house and the senate have a limited number of terms in which one can serve in each chamber.  While true that after completing terms in both the house and senate a legislator would have served a significant number of years, it still falls short of being a full career particularly when you take into account the low rate of pay they receive. The second mechanism of preventing a Missouri state legislator from being disconnected from his/her constituents or becoming too entrenched in the political environment of Jefferson City is a time limited session.  The legislative session in Missouri lasts about 5 and a half months.  Leaving the rest of the year for legislators to spend time with their families, their likely full time jobs and in their districts with their constituents back home.  After mid-may, in a typical year, all the bills for the session that were going to pass, have passed.  The rest are left to re-thinking, re-negotiation and being re-filed in January of the next session. On very rare occasions special sessions also called extra-ordinary sessions are called.  These sessions are typically called for high profile, time sensitive matters of the state. These extra-ordinary sessions are much more rarely called for longer and larger overarching philosophical debates and issues that may be better vetted during ordinary session. This summer the governor called back legislators from their “vacations”, summoned them to Jefferson City and asked them to deal with an issue of job creation in the boot-heel and for an issue important to anti-abortion supporters. More recently, the legislature itself is considering calling a special session over the issue of recent Medicaid cuts to seniors.

The merits of having a special session on these issues will be thoroughly debated in the media, private meetings of various politicos and publicly on the floors of both the house and senate.  Certainly, there are reasonable arguments on both sides of whether the issues at hand warrant an extra-ordinary session. I would argue that if what we need is less of a career politician then we need our elected officials at home, meeting with their neighbors and citizens in their district. While it’s true that lobbyists have influence during the off session, at fundraisers and the occasional in district meeting with legislators, they in no way have the level of influence that citizens in district have.  The very citizens that check legislators out at the grocery store, see them at their favorite coffee spot every morning or do business with them during the legislator’s full time job.  When legislators are taken out of their district for weeks at a time during the 6 months they are supposed to be home, they are exposed to more politics and more influence from those not in their district. All of these observations beg the question…does our state want full time “career” politicians? Or do they want politicians who spend time at home, in district holding down another job and interacting with their constituents?  At some point it becomes clear that having special session after special session is the cause of career politicians not the undoing of them. 

In the coming weeks, we will once again see if the legislature is called back to special session whether on their own accord with a 75% vote of both the House and the Senate or by the Governor.  Likely, if a special is called there will already be an agreed upon proposal that will inevitably be a band-aid style, watered down fix to an overarching lasting problem that will need to be addressed over the course of the next several sessions.  Another special in October remains to be seen but it will certainly be special interest driven, robbing legislators of time in their districts and costing those same constituents tax dollars to fund it.