A long-cherished political tradition is at risk at our state capitol but it might not be too much of a risk.
St. Louis Representative Gina Mitten has introduced a bill banning candidates for statewide office from chairing House or Senate committees while they are seeking that statewide job. She says the situation invites abuse because it links the influence committee chairpeople have over legislation at a time when donors might be influenced by the committee’s actions.
Does that happen? Surely not.
Mitten says the situation does not “pass the smell test.” She’s not proposing the candidate leave the committee. She just wants the candidate out of the chair. The candidate can still dominate the discussion and gain as many headlines as would be gained while in the middle seat. But the candidate’s authority over the fate of the legislation presumably would be erased.
Mitten isn’t messing around either. Her bill would ban any chairperson who doesn’t step aside from running for statewide offices for two election cycles. (Maybe they could become lobbyists. Other bills moving in the General Assembly would force lawmakers wanting to become lobbyists to wait a whole year before darkening the halls of the capitol. One entire year. Is there any doubt that requirement would solve the problem of ex-legislators getting too close, too soon, to their former colleagues?)
Mitten counts four sitting committee chairpersons who are running for statewide office this year.
Her bill would end decades and decades of practice. Both parties have done the thing she wants to stop. It has not been unusual for somebody wanting to improve their visibility and have a chance to grab some headlines to talk to the Speaker of the House or the President pro Tem of the Senate about forming a high-profile committee they can chair, especially if it is about an issue that is important to the candidate’s or the party’s political base. An interim committee is best because there’s less competition for headlines than there is during the regular session. Plus, interim committees can hold hearings throughout the state, increasing that visibility among voters who otherwise wouldn’t be paying attention to a committee hearing in Jefferson City and therefore wouldn’t know or care who is leading the crusade.
Her bill might have a little bit better chance this year than it would have had in years past because the legislature is on a righteousness kick when it comes to lawmaker ethics. But it probably won’t have much of a chance. She’s a Democrat in a monocratic Republican legislature.
She introduced House Bill 2398 on January 27. As of February 9, the Speaker had not assigned it to a committee. One might think it would go the House Ethics Committee, of course. She’s the vice-chairman.