Needed words and $16,000 chairs

(This post is rated “R” because of language)

Senate Leader Ron Richard gave his colleagues a dressing-down last week.  He has had his fill of fellow senators ignoring rules of common courtesy and respect for one another and for the position of Senator.  

It’s about time somebody said what he said.   

The Senate has written rules on decorum. But the UNwritten rules are as important, maybe more important, because they’re the kind of rules of common courtesy and respectful language that our parents tried to drum into us.   Good manners are not laughing matters. 

We’re not going to get into a discussion of rudeness and crudeness in campaigns.  That’s not what Richard was talking about and that’s not what we’re going to talk about here. 

Not long after Jefferson City became the state capital in 1826, a newly-elected member of the House of Representatives went to the Governor’s House—that’s what it was called then at a time when the first government building in Jefferson City housed the legislature and a two-room apartment for the governor—and went to the second floor to present his credentials.  Sorry, he was told, this is the Senate.  You should be downstairs in the House.  The new state rep supposedly observed that he had passed through the House on his way upstairs and thought it was a grog shop, what we today would call a rather raucous bar.  

The Senate likes to maintain the idea that the House is a noisy, unruly joint while the Senate is the place of dignity and cool reflection on potential law.  In recent years, we have observed, too many Senators seem to think the Senate is little more than a smaller House. 

Some former House members have sometimes addressed the Senate’s presiding officer as “Mr. Speaker” two years after becoming Senators, and in debate have sometimes referred to each other as “gentleman,” or “lady,” which are House terms.  Everybody in the Senate is a Senator and the presiding officer is “Mr. President,” or “Madame President.”  Slovenly discipline is such a small thing as this used to not happen.

There are Senate rules about where members can walk, which aisles they can use to get to their seats—and above all, they are not to walk between two debating Senators.  But it has happened all too often, and the reaction has too often been treated as some kind of a joke.

It has been considered extremely rude for one senator to ask another senator on the floor why a vote was cast the way it was.  Not so much anymore.  Senators are free to give their opinions on legislation during debate but they are not accountable to one another for their final votes on a bill.  They should be accountable to their constituents, and ultimately are, although being accountable to donors and influence-peddlers in the halls can’t be overlooked.

And language.  Your chronicler of events remembers the day a Senator slipped and referred to being “pissed off,” and was so embarrassed by his comment that he started to apologize even before the gavel came down to admonish him.  That seems such an innocent time.  A few days before Richard spoke on a point of personal privilege, one senator had referred to an issue as “bullshit.”  Richard told the senate that profanity has no place in the chamber and will not be tolerated hereafter. 

He can’t do anything about “the f-word” aimed at the governor by at least one senator some time ago on Twitter.   So we’ll say it: Senators are senators even when not in the chamber and such language demeans that body.  There are, as Senator Richard indicated, some things that can be said in the privacy of one’s office that should not be said in a public forum because it lowers the esteem of the chamber.  And twitter is about as public a forum as there is today.

And just plain common courtesy.  It has not been uncommon (but not real common, either) for a senator to interrupt debate to speak on a point of personal privilege about an unrelated issue.  It’s another example of the discourtesy that has crept into the chamber in recent years. Richard set an proper example by waiting until debate had been finished on an issue and the vote had been taken before he asked to make his personal remarks. 

So Senator Richard has served notice there will be penalties for people who use bad language, who violate rules of courtesy by asking why someone voted as they did, and who deliver personally-critical comments about a colleague, or use barnyard language.  We listened to his remarks archived by the Secretary of State and didn’t hear him mention walking between debating senators or violating other movement rules, or other courtesies that used to maintain collegiality outside the capitol.  But his desire to regain lost decorum in a chamber where decorum has only become a word in too many ways for too many years is a good thing.  Now we’ll see if he can make it stick. 

Although Richard did not say what the penalties would be for violations there have been, frankly, times when about half of the members of the chamber could have been banished to the visitors’ galleries.   Their violations of decorum have been much worse and far more frequent than anything any reporter at the press table has done.  But Richard has sentenced the press corps to the gallery.    

Probably because he can.   Whether he can inflict any meaningful or equally onerous punishment on his fellow Senators is something we’ll wait to see.   And we’ll be watching our former colleagues in the press corps to hear if Richard’s fellow Senators are capable of shaping up because of his lecture.  

——————-

Just as we were about to post these comments, we learned that the Senate leaders had decided to delay punting the press corps off the Senate floor into the visitors’ gallery until after the session.  That leads us to a slight diversion in this conversation but we’ll get back to Senator Richard and his PPP eventually because it ties in to this story, too.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Project on Government Oversight reported during the Reagan administration that the Pentagon had paid $435 for a hammer, $600 for a toilet seat, and $7,000 for a coffee pot.  The story about the delay in kicking the reporters off the Senate floor is the story of eight $16,000 seats.  

The Associated Press reported the delay is a money issue.  The move already was going to cost the senate $127,000 to renovate the gallery and move all of the necessary wiring to the new facilities in part of the gallery that has been reserved for visitors since 1919.  But doing it this month would have cost an extra $44,000, raising the total cost of moving eight reporters from the table to the gallery to more than twenty-thousand dollars per press table seat.   

Twenty-thousand dollars per seat.  The Senate already was going to spend about $16,000 per seat before the overtime issue was raised.  And that, apparently, is enough.   

We’re kind of moving away from the original topic here, but we just can’t help it.  One Senator two years ago got his nose out of joint because he said something to another senator within earshot of the press table and one reporter summarized the conversation in a tweet and another reporter re-tweeted that tweet.  It is useful to question whether the tweeting was proper but if the senate is concerned about such things it has only itself to blame—and this will start to move us back to Richard’s point of personal privilege.

The unwritten rules of the Senate have said for generations that the press table is off-limits to senators and that interviews are not allowed to be done in the chamber while the senate is in session.  But time after time through the years, senators have strolled over to the press table, sat down on the couch behind some of the reporters and have engaged members of the press in conversations while debate continued on the floor, often making on-the-record comments about an issue or responding to questions from those at the press table.  I recall one day when a senator who couldn’t get to his seat because he would have had to go between two debating senators sat at one of the press table chairs—until I reminded him that he wasn’t allowed to sit there.  Members of the senate created that climate.  And now senators are bound and determined to spend at least $127,000 so they won’t be tempted to do what many of them have done so often in the past in violation of the chamber’s rules.  

It might be good to note that the Virginia Senate Majority leader, Tommy Norment, announced in late January that he would allow reporters back on the floor of the Virginia Senate.  They had been banned from the Virginia Senate floor a few weeks earlier.  We don’t know why but Norment seems to have decided his ban was not a good thing.  We don’t know if cost of alternate space was a factor in Virginia but it sure is an issue in Missouri.  

Sixteen-thousand dollars per press table seat. A senate that voted to cut benefits to people without jobs is willing to spend $16,000 on new chairs for eight people.  Think about that.   

Too bad Senator Richard didn’t make his comments two years ago about respecting the unwritten rules as well as the written rules of decorum and courtesy in the chamber.  Maybe the tweeting wouldn’t have happened if a certain conversation was taken off the floor, as Richard said some conversations should be.  He was dead-center right in saying what he said last week that senators should behave more like senators in word and deed.   It’s easy for this scribe to say so now that this scribe is no longer scribing at the senate press table. 

But this scribe is not ever going to think the senate spending $16,000 dollars per seat to move reporters out of eight chairs so senators are not led into the continued temptation to violate the chamber’s own rules is a sensible expenditure of taxpayer money.   After all, that’s $16,000 per seat that could better be left in taxpayers’ pockets because, as the legislature keeps telling us, taxpayers know how to spend their money better than government does.

Oh, well—-the press corps at least still will have a ringside seat through the end of the session to see if Richards’ necessary words turn out to mean anything to members of the senate.  One can only hope.    

Let me know what you think......