What price will state GOP senators pay for maneuvering 'right to work' past Democratic filibuster?

May 19, 2015

It wasn't particularly surprising that state Sen. Bob Onder was pushing hard to get so-called "right to work" legislation through a seemingly intractable Missouri Senate.

The Lake Saint Louis Republican campaigned last year in support of right to work, which bars arrangements that force workers to pay union dues if a majority voted to organize. He supported that measure even though the population of union members has steadily increased in St. Charles County, which may be why his two unsuccessful GOP rivals opposed right to work during the campaign.

“I was warned by a lot of people: ‘You know, the unions are strong, Bob, in St. Charles County,’” Onder said. “And I said, ‘Well, 60 percent of the folks in my district, at least who voted in my election, believe that right to work is the right thing to do for the state of Missouri.’ To get things going. To get economic activity going.”

But last week, Onder did more than just vote to send Sen. Dan Brown’s right to work bill to Gov. Jay Nixon. He was one of 19 senators who backed a rarely used procedural motion called the "previous question" to end debate on the Rolla Republican’s bill. The move inflamed tensions in a chamber that thrives on personal relationships.  

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, campaigned last year as a proponent of right to work -- even though labor unions have gained a bit of a foothold in St. Charles County.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio | File photo

Yet, Onder said that parliamentary gambit was justifiable to get right to work passed.

“We offer both sides of every issue free debate in almost any circumstance,” Onder said last Wednesday. “But there come issues that are important enough and that the minority will resist enough that we do have to cut off debate and do the public’s business. And I think yesterday rose to that occasion.”

Others though are questioning whether using the previous question was worth it, especially since it resulted in an arguably stronger Democratic filibuster that obliterated other GOP priorities. This was all for a piece of legislation that has a fairly slim chance of actually becoming law, since the votes to override a likely veto aren’t there at the moment.

Some members of the Democratic super-minority say hard feelings between Democrats and Republicans will bleed into next session – which could in turn impact the flow of legislation through the Missouri General Assembly.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said she didn't think Republicans knew the ramifications. “I mean, literally, the Senate was shut down for approximately two days as a result of the [previous question]. And nothing was getting done. I don’t know how they’re going to govern next year. I don’t know if they’ll drop a PQ again too soon knowing that this building would go in flames on the Senate side.”

Going nuclear

For those who don’t follow the inner workings of the Missouri legislature that closely, the term “previous question” may seem like inane gobbledygook. But the seemingly simple idea of forcibly ending debate has had a complex and controversial recent history in the Missouri Senate. 

Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, handled Rep. Eric Burlison's "right to work" bill in the Missouri Senate.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Unlike Congress, which often produces cloture motions to force votes on legislation, the Missouri Senate has an established tradition of unlimited debate. If a senator or a group of senators encounter a bill they don’t like, they can engage in a talk-a-thon to engender compromise or to prevent legislation from passing.

For the past eight years during regular session, the Republican majority refrained from using the previous question – which in turn made senators on the losing side of an issue more powerful. For instance, former Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, often led filibusters as a means to make significant alterations to bills. And conservative lawmakers like former Sens. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, and Jim Lembke were especially adept at using the filibusters to torpedo their party’s big-ticket bills.

“We were called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for a time,” said Lembke, alluding to a small group of senators who filibustered effectively.

Yet, reluctance to use the previous question appeared to dissipate last veto session, when Republicans quashed a Democratic filibuster of legislation lengthening the waiting period for a woman to have an abortion. At the time, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, cited the fact that one of his colleagues had to leave town – which in turn necessitated the maneuver. 

Schmitt laughs with Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, after the Senate adjourned for the year. Schmitt voted for right to work.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Last Tuesday, after a filibuster that stretched throughout the day, Republicans again used the previous question to pass right to work. Besides Onder, one of the senators who signed onto the motion was Sen. Eric Schmitt – a Glendale Republican who was endorsed by the AFL-CIO for his unopposed re-election bid. (Other AFL-CIO-endorsed senators who voted for right to work include Sens. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and David Pearce, R-Warrensburg.)

“I think as chairman of the economic development committee, I look around see other states that are growing. A lot of them are right-to-work states,” Schmitt said. “And so, I just had to make a decision about what I thought was the best thing for the state that I live in and I represent.”

Schmitt – who is running for state treasurer – said he “respects the ability of someone in the minority position to take up time and filibuster.”

“But there is a balance there too. A filibuster, generally speaking, is used to engender compromise,” Schmitt said. “And the only time you ever find yourself in a situation where the [previous question] is even talked about is when that has broken down. I don’t think there’s a desire among many for this place to deviate much from where we’ve been. But that’s going to take a lot of conversations among senators individually.”

'Shut up'

Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, played a major role in shutting down the business of the Missouri Senate after the previous question of right to work.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Whatever the rationale for using them, previous questions often come at a cost. And perhaps state Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, put it best the feeling Democrats have in the Senate when the GOP cuts off debate. 

“It’s the adult version of telling people to shut up,” said Webber, who correctly noted that the previous question is routine in the Missouri House. “And so there’s nothing more partisan than saying ‘we’re going to take the core issue for you and we’re going to tell you to shut up about it and we don’t want to hear what you have to say.’”

It’s fair to say that Democrats did the opposite of shutting up after the right to work filibuster last Tuesday. They proceeded to shut down the Missouri Senate with parliamentary maneuvers and in turn killed lots of Republican priorities.

“We did block the voter ID. We did block the reduction of unemployment benefits,” Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis. “And we did block the employment discrimination bill. From our caucus, it’s not so much what we accomplished. It’s what we stopped.”

The Democratic reaction to the previous question shouldn’t surprise GOP legislators who were Senate members in 2007. That’s when Republicans used previous question motions to pass a controversial higher education bill, abortion restriction legislation and an amendment making English the official language of proceedings. After the 2007 session ended, relations between the two parties were so frayed that then-Senate Minority Leader Maida Coleman called Republicans “punks, because I couldn’t say my other word that starts with a ‘P.’”

Former Sen. Delbert Scott engineered one of the three previous questions in 2007. The Lowry City Republican said last week that the previous question is a “major deal” when competing parties can’t find common ground. 

When he served in the Missouri Senate, Delbert Scott was responsible for throwing down several previous question motions.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“Whoever’s in the majority, they’re going to use whatever means available to do it. Is it politically smart? I don’t know with all the fallout,” said Scott, who also served nearly two decades in the Missouri House. “But you come in with an agenda to try to make that happen. And if you’re in the minority, which I was for 18 years in here – you lose. But then there’s another day and another issue and you move on.”

One key difference between 2007 and 2015 is that people like Scott used previous questions on legislation that had a pretty good shot of becoming law. The same can’t be said for Brown’s right to work bill.

That’s because the bill fell woefully short in the House and Senate of enough votes needed to override Nixon’s almost-certain veto. Some Republicans like Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, are resolute in their opposition to the bill, especially since many of their constituents are members of organized labor.

“In the last two weeks, when you go home and you go the grocery store, you go to church, you go get gas – the people that come up to talk to me say, ‘You guys aren’t going to pass right to work? You’re not going to vote for it, are you?’” Wieland said. “No one has ever come up to me and said ‘Paul, we really need you to go up there and vote for right to work.’ It’s just never happened.”

Empire of dirt?

So given that this past previous question stoked dissension over legislation that may never become law, was it worth it to use the maneuver? 

Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, is one of four Republican senators who voted against "right to work." More than 20 GOP House members voted against that measure.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Some senators like Wieland aren’t so sure.

“I think it’s going to have repercussion over the long-term,” Wieland said. “I just think, my hope is, over a period in the interim that tempers cool. People start talking to each other when we try to find a way to build the trust back in the Senate and turn the Senate back into what it was meant to be. It’s going to take time. Everything takes time.”

Nasheed said forcing a vote on right to work has little to do with public policy – and everything to do with riling up the GOP base before a decisive election cycle.

“Many of them can go back home and say, ‘Look we passed right to work and the Democratic governor opposed it. And that’s why we have to come in droves and continue to control the House and the Senate and try to get the governor’s mansion,’” Nasheed said. “So, I mean, they’re pandering to their base. And that’s what they do best. I don’t think they intentionally believed with all their heart and mind that they were actually going to get it passed.”

But one of the main drivers of using the previous question – Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin – said he’s comfortable with the decision to force a vote on an issue some GOP lawmakers have sought for decades.

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, was one of the biggest proponents of using the previous question to pass "right to work."
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“We’re not going to give up our ability to use the previous question as part of the rules,” Richard said. “We understand that issue you’re talking about, right to work, is somewhat confrontational. But we had a majority in our caucus that thought we should move forward on it. And it’s been an issue that we’ve been wanting to vote on for more than 50 years. We thought it was time.”

Lawmakers may revisit right to work when the General Assembly convenes for its veto session in September. And whether or not it makes it past the finish line, Onder agreed with Richard about the value of stopping debate on the issue.

“Elections do have consequences,” Onder said. “Both of my opponents were opponents of [right to work]. And I ran on that issue and won. I got 64 percent of the vote in a three-way race. So, I think it was a mandate to come down here and do the public’s business.”