This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Amid all the negotiations about veto overrides, Missouri’s huge bloc of House Republicans have yet another matter to decide at the same time: Who will be the next House speaker?
For several years now, the state GOP has been so confident about maintaining control of the Missouri House that the party’s legislators have taken to electing a “speaker-designate’’ more than a year ahead of the switch.
This time, the issue is the successor to Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, whose tenure ends in late 2014. And the contest appears to have narrowed to two contenders:
- House Majority Leader John Diehl, R-Town and Country;
- State Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia – and a cousin of the current speaker.
Diehl and Jones, both lawyers, say their political views are similar. The two are both touting the same conservative views on such issues as abortion (against it) and guns (for them), and hold similar ratings from socially conservative groups.
What’s different, at least from Jones’ perspective, is their approach.
“This isn’t about issues,” said Jones, who at 33 would be among the House’s youngest speakers. “This is about where our caucus is headed.”
Jones explained, “I looked at the process that we go through to create legislation, and I felt we should change the process in which we operate, to give caucus members more of a voice in what legislation passes, what legislation fails and what legislation becomes a priority.”
As majority leader, Diehl has played a powerful role in moving legislation over the past year. He says his record speaks for itself.
“Each caucus member will make their decision based on their observations, how they’ve seen each candidate operate and treat that individual member,’’ Diehl said. “It’s about relationships within the caucus.”
Diehl, who turns 48 next week, has promised in writing -- if he's chosen speaker -- to help raise money for House Republicans, and promising that all money raised during his tenure would go into caucus coffers, not his own.
Diehl said in an interview that -- unlike recent GOP predecessors -- he has no plans to accumulate money for a major statewide bid. Tim Jones, for example, has been very public about his plans to run for statewide office -- possibly attorney general -- in 2016.
Contest focuses more on process than politics
Caleb Jones also offered specifics in a letter he sent to fellow House Republicans a few days before they gathered in St. Louis.
Among other things, Caleb Jones promised to:
1. Eliminate the House Rules Committee, which Jones contends has become "a stopgap for legislation" that curbs the power of individual House members.
2. Eliminate the limits on committee chairmen, who now are stricted to passing three bills out of their committee. Jones called that restriction " neutering of committees" that has led to massive House omnibus bills, which he promises to discouraged.
3. Increase the power of the House GOP caucus, by requiring the committee chairs to "report to the caucus on a weekly basis what legislation they are hearing and voting on."
Meanwhile, Diehl got a boost on Friday during the House Republicans’ caucus meeting downtown, when state Rep. Mike Leara, R-south St. Louis County, announced his endorsement of Diehl and circulated a letter.
Leara had been Diehl’s opponent for majority leader a year ago.
“As our floor leader, John has demonstrated time and again that he has earned our support by the way he has handled himself,” Leara wrote. “Even on issues where we may disagree, John has always carried himself with professionalism, respect, and integrity. This is the kind of leadership that we need to ensure the long-term strength of our caucus.”
Current Speaker Tim Jones said he’s staying out of the contest, although Caleb Jones confirmed that they do talk frequently. Both Joneses agree that Tim Jones is focused on his current post.
Some legislators privately see a rural-urban split. Caleb Jones has an undergraduate degree in agriculture and is believed to have ties to rural groups. Diehl, from suburban St. Louis, has strong ties with many of the state’s powerful business groups.
The timing of the caucus vote may be significant. Some of the previous votes for speaker-designate have been held the day before the annual veto session begins. Although this year’s timing has yet to be announced, several legislators said they understood the caucus vote will be held right after the veto session ends.
The aim, some said privately, was to prevent any fallout from the Diehl-Jones vote when it comes to lining up Republican votes for any attempted overrides of Gov. Jay Nixon’s vetoes. Republican solidarity may determine victory or defeat when it comes to several possible override votes – particularly pertaining to HB 253, the tax-cut bill.