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Some question the limits to legislating the Missouri legislature

People mill in the hallway leading to the Missouri Senate chamber.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
People mill in the hallway leading to the Missouri Senate chamber.

At the tail end of a recent episode of the Politically Speaking podcast, state Sen. Jill Schupp was asked a fairly straightforward question: Had her colleagues learned anything from the resignations of John Diehl and Paul LeVota, two lawmakers who stepped down last year amid accusations of inappropriate behavior toward female interns?

The Creve Coeur Democrat provided a pessimistic response:

“Unfortunately, no matter where you go there are always some bad apples who take advantage of their position,” Schupp said. “And when we’re put in positions of power, sometimes we forget that we are always accountable to the people. And so, I’d like to think that the better side of our nature takes over. That’s simply not always going to be the case. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, strongly questioned whether the legislature was taking the right focus with its ethics overhaul.

“I don’t know how long those lessons will be heeded,” she concluded.

Schupp’s words proved eerily prophetic. Because a few days later, state Rep. Don Gosen resigned under a cloud.

While the Ballwin Republican initially declined to specify why he stepped aside, other media outlets revealed Gosen had had an extramarital affair.And the revelation came as the Missouri House embarked on an ethics overhaul buoyed by Diehl and LeVota’s resignations. Once the session began, the General Assembly’s lower chamber quickly passed bills that would curb lobbyist gifts and slow down the transition between legislating and lobbying.

House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said this is what his chamber would "do at the beginning of session, which is take a step forward on improving the environment here in Jefferson City.”

But Gosen’s resignation prompted tough questions about whether these initiatives will change a Capitol with an increasingly declining reputation.After all, the scandals in question involved male lawmakers either having extramarital affairs or sexually harassing female interns – conscious choices that don’t have much to do directly with lobbyist gifts or influence. 

“I’ve thought about the words of the Apostle Paul who said I’m the chief of sinners,” said Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield. “I connect with those words. The only answer is that we address the human condition. And quite frankly, I don’t care if it’s a 10-year cooling off period. There’s a way around everything that’s written down. We all know that.”

The big backlash

Dixon’s arguments hone in on the assumption that Jefferson City’s “anything goes” culture causes good people to do bad things. That almost certainly occurs. But what if voters keep electing lawmakers with deep-seated character flaws, like susceptibility to peer pressure or a disdain for women? Could banning a lobbyist from giving that legislator a nice meal stop that person from having an affair or engaging in sexual harassment? 

Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, was one of many senators who stood up against a "cooling off" period for lawmakers to become lobbyists.

Dixon says the answer is no.

“The system is not corrupting,” Dixon said. “The system is innate. The problem is we have human beings involved. And there’s no one of us who’s perfect.”

State Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, voted for all of the House ethics bills. He acknowledged, though, that there are limits to what lawmakers can do. After all, he says it’s difficult for voters to detect intricate personal details about candidates who run for office.

“The voters are the ultimate backstop,” Haahr said. “They’re the ones that check it. But those are on the back end. When you have just a few people that you have to pick from and often you don’t know those people directly, it’s hard to have an idea which ones have the best ethical background.”

Dixon’s speech wasn’t the only sign that the House’s ethics overhaul was facing turbulence. A bigger hint was when the Missouri Senate effectively rejected a bill instituting a one-year “cooling off period” before lawmakers can become lobbyists. Instead, the Senate overwhelmingly agreed to bar a lawmaker from resigning early to take a lobbying job. (The Senate also balked this week at approving a lobbyist gift that passed the Missouri House.)

During debate last week, senator after senator express philosophical objections to a “cooling off period.” Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, noted that only around 4 percent of lobbyists are former legislators, which led him to question whether the initiative was a solution in search of a problem.

“[The founders of America] weren’t saying that once you became a member of a legislative body that therefore you had forgone your ability to earn a living in any shape, form or fashion that you desire to,” Schatz said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a conversation with a constituent of mine in my six legislative years here that came up to me to say ‘You know, you’ve got to do something about that revolving door.’”

Another reason the ethics push came under bipartisan fire? The slew of bills the House sent to the Senate does not include capping political contributions. 

Pearce is known for wearing a bright red sport coat on the Senate floor to honor Central Missouri State University. In 2009, then-Sens. Scott Rupp and Kevin Engler joked that he looked like Ron Burgundy for the film "Anchorman."
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, contends that any ethics push is inadequate without campaign contribution limits.

“I think something will get done this year. I guess you can probably call it ethics light,” said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, before the session began. “From what I’ve heard from Speaker Richardson, he said that two of the things that he wants to focus on are gift bans or gift limits and closing the revolving door. Both of those are, I think, very good places to start. But you can’t have meaningful ethics reform unless you have limits on campaign contributions and disclosure of 501(c)(4) donations.”

And while Democrats have expressed the most support for donation limits, that idea is also gaining a little bit of traction with a small group of GOP lawmakers as well.

“And you know, we’re spending so much time talking about ethics reform,” said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg. “We’re worried about whether a lobbyist takes me out for a cheeseburger, but we don’t care if that same lobbyist or some group gives me a million dollars. I think that’s where we really need to focus on these huge campaign contributions.”

Forging ahead

Pearce and other fans of campaign finance limits will likely be disappointed atthe end of session. That's because the GOP-controlled legislature is unlikely to place caps on contributions this year -- or anytime in the near future.

Richardson, though, said that the Senate’s action on the revolving door bill was not necessarily a death knell for the House’s ethics agenda. He said he would even consider attaching ethics bills to Senate legislation to make sure that “substantive” changes get to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk.  

House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, is adamant that the legislature pass an ethics overhaul.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications
House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, is adamant that the legislature pass an ethics overhaul.

"I’m confident that if we have enough time to work with the some of the opposition over there, we’ll be able to find a bill that can move out," Richardson said last week. "Listen, I don’t think revolving door ban ought to be that controversial of an issue. I think the way the House sent it was a very reasonable and responsible way to do it.

"We’ll be spending some time directly engaging to try to get that through and hopefully we’ll be successful," he added.

And Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, noted that even though the ethics bills under considerations don’t line up exactly with why Diehl, LeVota or Gosen resigned, it doesn’t mean the legislature shouldn’t seriously consider the ideas.

Those events, Onder said, “make us look at the Capitol, look at the state of ethics in our system and lead us to take action on things that weren’t front and center previously.”

“I believe this revolving door bill is a good one,” said Onder, who handled the “cooling off period” in the Senate. “And I think there are other things that can be done in the area of ethics as well.”

One former lawmaker who hopes to become a current lawmaker noted that voters could play a role in changing the Capitol's environment, especially toward womenFormer state Rep. Vicki Englund said last year that one ingredient to changing legislative culture involves electing more female lawmakers to office. 

“I think one of the things that changes the atmosphere too is being a mother. I would often find myself trying to say ‘Can’t we all just get along?’” said Englund, a Democrat who is running against state Rep. Cloria Brown, R-St. Louis County, for the state House. “And so, being focused on getting people to know each other from a professional ‘let’s talk about these issues’ standpoint – that being the focus, as opposed to other stuff, I think would do wonders.

“It’s one of those things that the voters have to choose, but at the same time there is also a litany of reasons why women don’t run for office,” she said. “And if one of them is that Jefferson City has its issues and women aren’t treated fairly, that’s definitely not going to inspire women to run for office in the first place.”

Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.