Waiting for the Nobel Prize

Today we want to recognize an important first step in re-shaping economic thinking so significantly that reducing or eliminating the national debt could be done easily, a concept so brilliant that—if appropriately expanded—could merit international recognition.

The tax bill recently approved by the House of Representatives in Washington proposes to tax graduate student tuition waivers.  For those of us who never got far enough in our higher education to be offered those waivers or who came along before they were widespread in higher education, here’s how they work:

A University tells a student pursuing a master’s degree or a doctorate they will not have to pay tuition if they help teach or do research beneficial to the university.  The university pays those students a small stipend for their work so they can eat and pay their rent.

The House bill wants to consider the tuition waiver as income.   And to tax it.

It is a matter of considering money a person never has and does not spend as income and then levying an income tax on those never-had and unspent funds.   Think of the possibilities!

Paying a tax on the raise you did not get could provide millions of deficit-reducing dollars to the federal government.  Paying a tax on a stock dividend that did not materialize would add even more.  Considering the difference between what you wanted on a car trade-in and what the dealer gave you as income and taxing that amount would add to the deficit-reducing federal income.

Here’s one we thought of the other day when we went to Columbia where the gas price that day was nineteen cents less per gallon than the price in Jefferson City.  We used our grocery store gas rewards card to knock another forty cents a gallon off of the fuel we put in our tank.  Think how much the federal government could collect if it considered supermarket gas refunds as part of our personal income.

Soon the pre-holiday price reductions we are seeing in our stores will give way to the post-holiday sales prices.  If Congress were to take the simple step of taxing the hundreds of millions of dollars that are not spent because of those pre-and-post-holiday price reductions, the annual federal deficit could be eliminated and bites could be taken out of the total national debt.

The car companies are offering multi-thousand dollar incentives to clear their lots of 2017 models.  If Congress were to consider those price reductions as income and tax it, another important debt-reduction step could be taken.

Think of how much money is saved every single day by people who shop at the day-old bread counter at the grocery store.  It might seem like pennies for each loaf, but when applied nationally and for an entire year, taxing the savings on all of those loaves of day-old bread will add up to millions of dollars a year in tax collections.

Oh, and here’s a biggie.  An industry that decides to build a factory, a warehouse, or any other facility in a foreign country instead of in the United States because it can save millions of dollars in construction and operation costs:  If those savings were considered corporate income and taxed—even at the proposed lowered corporate tax rate—the economic benefit would be enormous.

And—oh, wait, there’s one more and it’s particularly appropriate at this time of year.  Further, it’s pretty comparable to the tuition waiver.   We are awash in online and catalog offers to provide customers with a benefit if the customer provides something of value to the merchant in return for which the merchant waives a fee or charge.  Give us money, says the merchant, and we will give you a sweater but we will waive the shipping charge.  Since the customer receives the benefit–a sweater—but spends no money to receive it, the shipping charge is thus income and can be taxed as such, just as a graduate student receives a benefit—an education—by providing something of value to the university (teaching or research assistance) but does not pay the equivalent of a “shipping charge” to get it and therefore faces paying income taxes on money never possessed or spent.

Think of the incredible benefits this economic philosophy of turning unspent dollars into taxable income could provide if applied widely, assuming the federal government doesn’t just increase spending to or beyond the amount of additional funds it would collect.  Congress could wipe out the national deficit and it could provide billions of dollars that could trickle down throughout America in programs and services beneficial to the poor, the hungry, the sick.

And to graduate students.

We’ll be watching for next year’s announcement of the Nobel Prize for Economics to see if this great advance is deservedly rewarded.

There used to be some courtesy—

It is hard to imagine that we will ever see something like this article that was in the Jackson Independent, published in Cape Girardeau County on January 5, 1828:

GOOD EXAMPLE TO ELECTORS

The following resolution was unanimously adopted at a meeting of the friends of General Jackson, held in Northumberland County, Kentucky—

Resolved, That we will through the contest for the Presidential Chair, disprove of any vulgar, harsh and unbecoming epithets, or language used, either in relation to our own candidate or the administration party, believing that such things tend to inflame the public mind unnecessarily, and have injurious effects upon the morals of our country.

—Where are those followers of Andy Jackson when we need them?

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2017: A legislative anniversary that isn’t

This is the seventieth anniversary of the first meeting of Missouri’s Unicameral General Assembly.

Not.

We’ve lost track of the number of years somebody proposed reducing the size of our legislature, usually by doing something mathematical with the number of Senators.   For instance, having three House districts for each Senate district. Using current numbers, that system would cut the size of the House from 163 to 102.  There have been proposals to increase the membership of the Senate to 35, presumably to avoid tie votes, with three or four Representatives per Senate district, for a total House count of 105 to 140.

The proposals might have gotten through the Senate but not surprisingly have had zero chance to finding favor in the House.

There was a time, however, when Missouri came close to eliminating the entire Senate.  All 34 members.   AND cutting the size of the House by one-half to two-thirds!

Imagine Missouri joining Nebraska as the only states with unicameral, or one-house legislatures.

Nebraska’s capitol actually has two legislative chambers.  The Senate, which has a Speaker, meets in the George W. Norris Chamber. The other chamber, used for ceremonial purposes, is called the Warner Memorial Chamber and was used by the Nebraska Senate for a short time before the change to the one-house general assembly beginning in 1937.

Missouri was not among the twenty-some states that immediately started considering switching to one-house legislatures but we weren’t far behind.  The issue was being widely discussed by the spring of 1941.  But opponents feared putting the issue on the 1942 ballot would deflect interest away from another important amendment that would give legislators their first pay increase since the adoption of the Missouri Constitution of 1875.  Lawmakers were paid five dollars a day for the first seventy days of a legislative session and then only a dollar a day for each day afterward.  Supporters of the pay raise believed higher pay would attract better men for the legislature (few women had served by then). But one newspaper suggested the opposite, remarking, “The people might look upon this pay increase with favor if at the same time they had the opportunity to reduce the number of lawmakers by half.”

An organization of businessmen announced in the spring of ’42 that they would circulate petitions calling for a unicameral vote in November.  The constitutional amendment would hike salaries to as much as $150 a month with six dollars a day for each day on legislative business.

A petition drive led by former state Superintendent of Schools Charles A. Lee submitted about 85,000 signatures to the Secretary of State on July 1, calling for a one-house legislature of fifty to seventy-five members as of the 1945 session.

But the whole campaign blew up a few days later when Springfield Justice of the Peace Tom Burns, known as a “marryin’ justice,” and a colleague, Erwin A. Greenhaw, were charged with arranging to have thousands of signatures forged in a “signature mill” in Burns’ basement, paying women and girls three-dollars a day to fake signatures.  Lee’s committee had paid them more than $2,500 to gather signatures on the unicameral petitions. His group withdrew the petitions, which killed the drive for the vote in 1942.  Burns and Greenhaw were later convicted on petition forgery charges. Burns spent two years in the pen. Greenhaw was fined $500.

The incident led State Representative Edgar Keating of Kansas City to introduce a bill in the 1943 legislature  “In recent years the initiative petition has gone to the point of being a racket,” he said, a statement buttressed by the admission of Notary Public Lee Weaver, who said he notarized many of the petitions without ever seeing the person who supposedly circulated them, admitting he had done the same thing for Burns and Greenhaw in the 1936 petition campaign that took the state’s conservation department out of politics.

The House passed the bill on February 25, by a vote of 112-0 with 38 members absent.  The strong vote made no difference to the Senate, which sent the bill to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee where it was never heard from again.

The issue returned in the long session of 1943-44 but was killed in a House committee when five rural members outvoted the two representatives from St. Louis city.  The amendment was similar to an amendment being circulated in a petition backed by a group called “Crusaders for Missouri.”

By now, a constitutional convention was underway, too.  A convention committee endorsed keeping the bicameral system, forcing delegate Stanford Lee Morton of Clayton to withdraw his unicameral proposal and plan to offer it in resolution form to the entire convention later. He wanted voters to have a choice when they voted on the proposed constitution but that idea was opposed by Con-Con President Robert E. Blake, an anti-New Deal Democrat from Webster Groves, and other delegates who wanted to send the proposed document to the vote as a single piece.  Morton had wanted an 81-member unicameral legislature with one Republican and one Democrat from each of the thirty-four senatorial districts and thirteen at-large members elected in partisan elections each of the state’s then-thirteen congressional districts.

When the Crusaders of Missouri submitted their petitions, Secretary of State Gregory Stockard ruled they were one day too late.  But the State Supreme Court said Stockard was mistaken and had to accept them.  This time there was no skullduggery and the petitions were found to have enough signatures to make the November ballot. The Crusaders plan called for a legislature of fifty to seventy-five members with a total payroll of $90,000 a year, the lawmakers elected in standard partisan elections to serve two-year terms. The 1945 legislature would decide the size of the new General Assembly, which would meet for the first time in 1947.

But the proposed state constitution got in the way.

The Missouri Supreme Court on September 27, 1944 guaranteed Missourians would get to vote on a unicameral legislature when it refused to review a Cole County Circuit Court ordering the issue to the November 7 ballot.

However, the convention voted the next day to send the proposed constitution to voters with a two-house general assembly retained.  And just before the convention adjourned with delegates singing one verse of “America” and a prayer that was the second verse of the song, the delegates set February 27, 1945 for voters to decide if Missouri would have its first new constitution in seventy years, a document 11,000 words shorter than the 1875 document that had been amended sixty times.

The Crusaders of Missouri decided to give up their campaign a week after that. The group said it feared its proposal would interfere with the adoption of the constitution.  Plus, adoption of a unicameral legislature in November would become meaningless if voters adopted the constitution with a two-house legislature in February.  The Crusaders asked Stockard to withdraw their plan from the November ballot.  But Stockard couldn’t do it.  Once on the ballot, it stays on the ballot, he said.

The Crusaders decided they would quit campaigning at that point.

On November 7, almost 365,000 Missourians voted for a unicameral legislature, only about 13-hundred fewer than approved calling the constitutional convention.  But 402,000 “no” votes were cast.  The unicameral proposition failed by just 37-thousand votes even though supporters had not campaigned for the last four weeks before the election. The plan carried St. Louis city and county and almost carried Jackson County. Outstate Missouri defeated it by 118,000 votes.

Missourians approved the new constitution in February, 312,032-185,658.  More than fifty-thousand fewer Missourians voted “yes” for the entire constitution than voted for the unicameral general assembly proposal.

A unicameral bill was introduced in the 1945 session but it was killed in a House committee with Miller County Representative Lucien Mace commenting, “It would take some of the power from the country and give it to the cities.”

The Sikeston Herald commented in its May 19th edition, “While the two-house system of government in Missouri may be cumbersome at times, it is believed in the capitol to be the best system yet devised to keep any section of the state from being the balance of power.”

Sikeston, of course, is part of rural Missouri.

And that is why 34 Senators and 163 Representatives still meet each year in Jefferson City.  And why we are not celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the Missouri Unicameral this year.

Journalism I

It’s not as if we haven’t been called names before. It’s not the first time that those in power wish reporters weren’t telling people what they’re really up to.  Or thinking about.

Criticisms or attacks from those who wish we weren’t so bothersome to them are not new nor will they ever go away. And what they say about us is sometimes not nearly so scathing as some of the things we say about ourselves.

We have accumulated through the years some of the noble things said about our profession and some of the criticisms leveled at it, internally and externally.  From time to time we will share them with you because we know that journalists have responsibilities and obligations of which they need at times to be reminded. We live in a world of kicks in the butt and occasional pats on the head and we are glad to toil in a nation that allows, if not encourages, both.  Here is a sample of the things said about those of us who do a job that is essential, regardless of whether you agree with what we say and write.

“Controversy? You can’t be any kind of reporter worthy of the name and avoid controversy completely. You can’t be a good reporter and not be fairly regularly involved in some kind of controversy. And I don’t think you can be a great reporter and avoid controversy very often, because one of the roles a good journalist plays is to tell the tough truths as well as the easy truths. And the tough truths will lead you to controversy, and even a search for the tough truths will cost you something. Please don’t make this play or read as any complaint, it’s trying to explain this goes with the territory if you’re a journalist of integrity. That if you start out a journalist or if you reach a point in journalism where you say, ‘Listen, I’m just not going not touch anything that could possibly be controversial,’ then you ought to get out.”

—Dan Rather, Staff, May 5, 2001

“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

—Norman Mailer, The Snark Handbook

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust. I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism. I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.”

—Walter Williams, founder of the nation’s first School of Journalism at the University of Missouri (1908), The Journalist’s Creed (partial)

“Journalism is unlike any other craft. It most closely resembles show business. There’s an undeniable element of ego in journalism, and an equally undeniable element of self-sacrifice. Performers know the show must go on. Journalists know the paper has to come out on time.”

—Donald L. Ferguson, Opportunities in Journalism Careers

“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles.”

—G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

“There is a line I would often share when I was a newspaper reporter talking to people who complained that we only reported ‘bad news.’ I would tell them: ‘It’s not news when a plane lands safely.’ And it’s not. ‘Everybody lived happily ever after’ is a great ending, but if they lived happily the whole time you wouldn’t bother reading.”

—Rick Polito, newhope360, January 20, 2016

 

“There is much to be said in favor of modern journalism.  By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”

—Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891.

Citizens do not think through the meaning of a free press.  Too many regard it merely as a profitable privilege of publishers, instead of the right of all the people and the chief institution of representative government.  A free press is that privilege of citizenship which makes governmental dictatorship impossible.  When editors fight for the liberty to speak and write, they fight for the greatest of all human rights under government.  He is not thoughtful who cannot see that democracy cannot exist except through the maintenance of a channel through which information can flow freely from the center of government to all the people and through which praise and criticism can flow freely from the people to the center.

—American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1938

So the journalist, the reporter, flourishes in this climate of scorn and principle. And your correspondent cannot think of anything he would rather be doing with his life than living in that climate.

We’ll let you inside that climate from time to time in the future.

 

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Signs of our times

Two geezers were having lunch the other day at a local restaurant/craft beer emporium and the conversation turned to the Five Man Electrical Band.   Right away, you know these two brilliant conversationalists had to be geezers because they immediately remembered the group’s biggest hit, Signs, which reached number three on the Billboard chart in 1971.

Metrolyrics has this version of the lyrics (which we are using because it cleaned up one line):

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply” So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do” So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!” Whoa-oh-oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house “Hey! What gives you the right?” “To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in” “If God was here he’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kinda sinner”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read? You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat You ain’t supposed to be here The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray” But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all I didn’t have a penny to pay So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine” Woo

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Five Man Electrical Band—uh—disbanded (add that to the list of old jokes such as “Old doctors never die, they just lose their patients,” and other puns about the ends of careers) in 1975, so you know that these two guys still without hearing aids but still WITH most of their teeth, quit being young in every place but their own minds a long time ago.

One geezer hauled out his pocket encyclopedia/camera, a device usually marketed as a telephone but which he seldom uses that way, and showed the other geezer a picture he took of a sign at a tourist junk shop in Limon, Colorado a few days earlier and suggested there are many venues where this sign should be posted:

Both geezers reflect that the sign is highly reminiscent of the four-way test of the civic organization, Rotary International, which is:

Is it TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

But then, Geezer one did the two-fingery thing on the encyclopedia/camera screen to widen out the image to show two other signs on either side of the “Think” sign.  The expanded image seems to capture the contradictions in our social dialogue, which too often take the shape of individual diaTRIBE.

To save you the trouble of doing your own two-fingery thing to expand the image, we’ll tell you that the sign on the left says, “If you can read this you are in range,” and shows an apparent double-barreled shotgun, and the sign on the right says “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes. The response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second.”

The other two signs might be true and helpful—somehow. We suspect they are seldom necessary. They aren’t real inspiring except in a pretty anti-social sort of a way.  And forget about kindness.  But in years to come they will provide fodder for sociologists, psychiatrists and other “ists” studying the American mind in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries.

Geezer One saw another sign a few days earlier at Dot’s Diner, a sandwich place in Nederland, Colorado—a few miles above Boulder—where the proprietors think the music of the Grateful Dead is appropriate background for a meal.  The sign wasn’t mean or threatening.  It just asked people to respect other diners who were having their sandwich with a Touch of Grey, or their omelet with Sugar Magnolia.

Maybe Geezer One was just feeling mellow during his lunch because he’d just ridden a pig on the 1909 restored carousel that is Nederland’s biggest attraction.  A fellow named Scott Harrison had rescued the carousel from the scrap heap and had spent more than twenty-five years carving all of the creatures for it.  The Carousel of Joy, it’s called.  And you are NOT too old to enjoy riding it and listening to the original Wurlitzer mechanical band organ as you go.

The discussion reminded one of the geezers of the kindly little signs that vanished from our roads about the time the interstate highway system came along.  The last Burma-Shave signs went up in 1963.  You might find a few in museums here and there today.  Some thought they were distractions to drivers and made the two-lane roads they populated less safe.  But now in these days with the pleas for drivers to ignore the distractions of Facebook, or Twitter, or the telephone itself—-at the same time that cars all have video screens in the middle of the dash loaded with all kinds of information—the concerns about Burma-Shave signs seem mild.

Some of the signs, in fact, promoted highway safety.  Frank Rowsome, Jr., put out a little book in 1965 that contained all of those messages, The Verse By the Side of the Road.  It has all of them, including the first ones in 1927. All had the company name at the end of each series and most promoted using the product when you were shaving with a blade.  But some were highway safety messages:

Don’t Lose/Your Head/To Gain a Minute/You Need Your Head/Your Brains Are In It

Or:

Dim Your Lights/Behind A Car/Let Folks See/How Bright You Are.

Then there was:

Thirty Days/Hath September/April/June And The/Speed Offender 

Would signs like those do as much good, or more good, on our highways than the electric signs telling us how many fatalities we’ve had each month, or reminding us to buckle up?   Or maybe they’d make some good light-hearted but meaningful reminders.  And monotony-breaking moments on the crowded, straight-as-a-string interstates.

Perhaps something such as:

Buckle Up/Don’t Be Silly/Don’t Be Under/A Stone With/ ACarved Lilly/MODOT.

If you have some Burma-Shave inspired signs that you think would be useful for MODOT, or that would meet the four-way test for general civil discussion, send them along in the “comments” section below.  If they meet our standards of civility (as we outline on this page) we’ll post them.  And then you can tell your friends YOU are a published poet!  A Roadside Laureate!

(Burma Shave sign image by G. D. Carrington)

The founders and the 501(c)(4)s

We honor fifty-six men today who were unafraid of being known although they knew their lives were at risk and an enemy was nearby. We should ask ourselves today how poorly we are keeping faith with them.

Your observer is intrigued by the idea advanced by some that people giving large sums of money to organizations that influence political decisions should be protected while the people on my quiet street who might give twenty dollars to a campaign cannot hide.

The issue came up late in the regular legislative session when some senators defending a colleague who was personally attacked by a dark money political action committee tried to pass a bill requiring such committees to disclose their donors.  Regular campaign committees have to list their donors in filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.  But the Super PACs, as they’re called, are formed for people who don’t want anybody to know who they are or how much they give. And these organizations appear to attract big-money donations that can finance anonymous personal attacks on other individuals in the political system or influence leaders to see things their ways.

Defenders of the dark money organizations say the secret organizations are necessary to protect donors from political retaliation.  It’s a freedom of speech matter, they say; these people would not be free to express their political positions if they had to do so publicly.

That’s kind of hard for the twenty-dollar donor who lives next door to understand.  How is it that somebody who lives in a big mansion can afford MORE freedom of speech than the people who live on my street in nice but modest homes can afford?  Are not we all equal under the First Amendment?

Apparently not in today’s political climate.  Twenty dollars donated to a candidate or a cause requires your name be on a list that your neighbors of differing political beliefs can see.  And if the candidate you support makes irresponsible claims, you can be held partly responsible.  On the other hand, if your candidate shows inspirational leadership, you can take some of the credit.

It takes courage to donate twenty dollars in the sunshine.  Cowardice lurks in the dark where much bigger donations flow. Our nation was not born in such cowardice.

Let us ponder how different our nation would be today if fifty-six men in 1776 anonymously issued a broadside accusing King George III of all kinds of awful things. Suppose the accusations carried the tag line, “Paid for by Citizens for Free Colonies,” an eighteenth century Super PAC that was not required to file any reports showing who was behind the attack.

But they didn’t do it.  Various sources estimating the wealth of those 56 signers show Oliver Wolcott, John Witherspoon, George Walton, Robert Treat Paine, and Samuel Adams were estimated to be worth 100 British Pounds in 1776.  University of Wyoming professor Eric Nye, on his Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency website, calculates those five men would be worth $16,358 today.  On the other end, Charles Carroll III of Carrollton, Maryland and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania were worth 110,000 British Pounds in 1776 (http://www.raken.com/american_wealth/encyclopedia/1776.asp), which Nye calculates would be just short of $18 million today.  John Hancock of Massachusetts, whose signature is the boldest, was the third wealthiest at about $12.8 million in today’s money.

Five men who were well below today’s poverty level were joined by men who could buy my entire neighborhood in speaking freely to absolute power.  And they knew full well what “political retaliation” could await them.

Fifty-six men who knew they were risking the noose or the firing squad were unafraid to let it be known what they were supporting politically. They were unafraid to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Our founders had the courage to proclaim their positions in the most public manner of their times. We became a nation because rich men and poor men, those living in privilege and those living in poverty, alike shared the personal courage to speak freely and openly.

What kind of people have we become that some of us are so afraid of “political retaliation” that is so mild compared to what our founders risked? What kind of people have we become that we will tolerate the argument that freedom of speech, the freedom to criticize those we elect, as well as the freedom to support those we select, should place those who can afford to attack from the darkness into a protected status?

Dare we continue to tolerate the noise from unknown voices in that darkness, and their defenders, and allow them to overcome the quiet sound of quill pens writing signatures on our founding document if we are to consider ourselves true descendants of those fifty-six men who had the courage to stand in the light?

no one cares

An extraordinary writer has written an extraordinary book you should read, especially if you are in a public policy position, particularly if that position involves holding public purse strings.

He begins his book bluntly: “This is the book I promised myself I would never write. And promised my wife as well.”

Why?

“I have kept that promise for a decade—since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his twenty-first birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia.”

Then, three years later, his eldest son, Dean, developed symptoms of schizophrenia, too.

Several weeks ago, while driving to Columbia to do some research at the State Historical Society, I heard Ron Powers being interviewed on National Public Radio about this book. I knew instantly I had to read it:  no one cares about crazy people, which draws its title from a “ghastly” remark made in 2010 by a campaign aide to Scott Walker, who was running for Governor of Wisconsin.  Even the lower-case print used on the cover and title page is a message.  Crazy people are lower-case people, ones we prefer to ignore, ones easy to lose.

It should be explained that Ron and I have been friends most of our lives although that friendship became strained for reasons that are now clear from reading his book, a circumstance that might not be unusual when friends do not realize the cumulative effects of life circumstances upon other friends.  If you’re not familiar with him, Google him.  He’s a Hannibal native. Look at the long list of his books. Read about his Pulitzer Prize and his career with Charles Kuralt on the CBS Sunday Morning show.

Early in his book, Ron writes of an experience he had in a Vermont legislative committee hearing (He lives in Vermont) that equals one of the most vivid memories I have of covering thousands of hours of committee meetings in four decades as a statehouse reporter.  I recall a father testifying in one of the committee rooms on the first floor of the Missouri Capitol about this state’s inadequate services for the mentally ill.   He recited the struggles of his son whose deteriorating mental health eventually led the son into crime and then to state prison.  The point the father made that day should have been disturbing to anyone facing him from the committee table: the only place his son could receive treatment for his mental disease was in a prison.

Ron and his wife, Honoree, had gone to the lovely, small, Vermont Capitol in Montpelier in January, 2014 to testify about whether mental patients should be institutionalized against their will when their conditions reach certain levels of desperation and danger, or whether such action violates the individual’s civil liberties and exposes them to questionable drug therapies perceived by some as being prescribed by doctors who receive financial rewards from “Big Pharma” for prescribing those drugs.  We’ve heard the same arguments here. He heard people such as the father I had listened to here in Missouri.

Just three weeks after the Powerses attended that hearing came the revelation of the callous pronouncement from the Walker aide.  And that’s when Ron began to re-think his vow about not writing the book, reconsidering his desire to protect the privacy of his sons, and reconsidering his feelings that he did not want to exploit them.  I am glad that he made the difficult decision to write it after that hearing jolted him out of his introspection and into what he realized is “a simple and self-evident and morally insupportable truth: Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.”

The book is not just a recounting of his family’s personal journey.  It also is an excellent journalistic recounting of the way societies have treated the mentally ill for centuries. Early in his book, Ron writes, “For centuries those who have been struck by madness have always had their own cruel nomenclature to bear, names intended to separate them out, divide us from them: lunatics, imbeciles, loonies, dips, weirdos, wackos, schizos, psychos, freaks, morons, nutcases, nutjobs, wingnuts, cranks.  The mad one, then, is something between a clown and a demon.  Unless that mad one is a gift of God made flesh.”

Such as a child.

Ron mixes the deeply-personal narrative of his family’s eventual shift from one of being normal, proud parents of gifted sons to a deepening search for hoped normality in the face of increasing and inescapable reality, with perceptive accounts of the years of society’s shifting thought on mental illness and the coining of the phrase “schizophrenia” by Eugen Bleuler in 1908.  Ron demonstrates his extensive journalistic story-telling skills to track the attitudes toward mental illness from the days of  demons and shamans; from Hippocrates to today’s researchers; from Bedlam, the first madhouse dating to 1247, to today’s asylums; from Sigmund Freud, Dorothea Dix, and Charles Darwin, to the disciples of Eugenics, and to Julian Jaynes’ Twentieth Century thoughts on the origins of madness—and research and policies in the forty-years since then, including mental illness deniers such as L. Ron Hubbard and Thomas Szasz..  It was mortifying to read that one Albert Priddy, the superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, was a strong advocate of eugenics and a leader of the effort to defend the Virginia Sterilization Act.  It is only slightly comforting that his name does not show up on our particular branch of the family tree.

His writing on the deinstitutionalization movement started in a Ronald Reagan-signed law while Governor of California, the effects of which remain obvious to those will but see, is damning.  Ron calls the Lanterman-Petris-Short act “the national gold standard for clueless, destructive government interference in the interest of mentally ill people.” And he offers studies showing that our prisons have become the largest treatment facilities for those with mental illness since the national adoption of the act’s philosophy.

Ron doesn’t want you to “enjoy” the book—and you won’t.  But read it anyway. FEEL his book.  Have the courage and the empathy to read it from beginning to end including the preface, especially if you deal with public policy—particularly health and mental health issues and budget issues.

Too rarely, I asked legislative committee chairmen and women how they could listen to real people plead for the kind of help that only government can provide and then ignore the humanity behind those pleas.  The answers always were basically, “Well, we only have so much money.”  In recent years, their successors have moved to assure the state will have even less.

It is sad that so much of the process of government—at all levels—and citizen participation in a society that is greater than the one behind our front doors seems to look only at dollars and not at the real people next door or across the street. National and international health studies indicate one in four of us experience, or will experience, some kind of mental illness. All of us know someone who is one of those. But it’s okay to see the face of only one person—George Washington, whose benign gaze greets us on the front of the dollar bill.

This is a book of humanity that every health and mental health committee member in every state legislature should read.  It’s a book ALL of us should read.  We should be uncomfortable throughout it, and after it.

Thank you, Ron and Honoree, for your courage and your strength with this book.  We hope others can draw courage and strength of their own to see people, not just dollars.

Story-tellin’

One of the great things about being a journalist is the stories people tell you, often stories that aren’t exactly “news,” but are interesting enough that you file them away to tell to others later. In my case, I used to have in the newsroom several boxes carrying the ghoulish label, “Prospective Death Box.”  Through the years my staff and I put recordings of interviews, speeches, and events into that box so we would dig them out and play parts of them back in our coverage of the death of a prominent person or the anniversary of an important event.

Some of those recordings are, as far as I know, the only preserved telling of a story, the only known recording of an event, the only sample of someone’s now-stilled voice.

One of those recordings is of the only man ever to serve three terms as State Treasurer.  He did it in the days when the Treasurer could not succeed himself, which makes his service even more remarkable.

M. E. Morris was a Dadeville native—southwest Missouri’s Dade County—who founded in 1928 the People’s Bank in Miller. He was elected to the Missouri House for the first of his two terms in 1932, after which he became the CEO of the Trenton National Bank. He left the bank in 1945 to become Commissioner of the state Division of Finance.

When the 1945 Constitution created a new agency for collecting taxes, the Department of Revenue, Morris became the first Director of Revenue for Missouri, serving under Governor Phil Donnelly.  This was in the days when Governors could not succeed themselves and therefore keep patronage-appointed department heads so when Donnelly left office, Morris ran for and was elected State Treasurer for the first time.  He could not succeed himself but fortunately Donnelly decided he wanted to be Governor again, so when Donnelly became Governor a second time, Morris became Revenue Director again.  When  Donnelly’s second term ended, Morris ran for Treasurer and won a second term.  The Revenue Director while Morris was in his second term was Milton Carpenter who became the state Treasurer in 1961, at which point, Morris replaced Carpenter as Revenue Director under Governor John Dalton.  When Carpenter’s term ran out, Morris ran again, and won a third term as state treasurer.

He retired from state government after almost 25 years as either revenue director or state treasurer, a pretty remarkable career that few people recognize.

Name recognition is important in politics and M. E. Morris felt he had a leg up on any candidate.   Although known as M. E. to the press, and “Monty” to friends, his real name, you see, was MOUNT ETNA Morris.

On March 23, 1984, a little more than four years before he died, I went to his home in Jefferson City to interview him for my book about Thomas Hart Benton.  The interview was pretty frustrating because Morris had little information to offer and furthermore spoke in a slow, low, halting voice and provided no useful details.  At the end, however, I asked him to explain how he got the name “Mount Etna.”  I listened back and transcribed it. And here, from his lips to my ears, from my keyboard to your eyes, is what he told me:

“Seems there was a Welsh captain on a ship, sailing ship, of course, back in the Mediterranean back in the old days, and he was off the coast of Sicily.  A storm came up and he was about to lose his ship, did lose his bearings.  Mount Etna was in eruption at that time, there on the coast of Sicily there.  So he got his bearings from the stream of lava flying up over there.  Got his bearings and saved his ship.  So when he got back home, his first boy baby, he named him Mount Etna.  That name has been in our family for many years.

“And I know about four or five Mount Etna Morrises are buried in south Missouri there.  That’s where they finally hung up.  In fact I sent a check this morning to the old Morris Cemetery down in the county just this morning.  They’re getting ready for Decoration Day down there. 

“My grandmother’s name was Mount Etna Morris.  That’s where the name originated.  It’s a good story.  And as far as I know it’s a true story because there’s been some Mount Etna Morrises in the past.  I know where four of them are buried. 

“I told that story many times in campaign speeches just so they would remember it.”  

Let’s face it, if you’re a voter and you go into the booth aren’t you more likely to remember a man named for a volcano than somebody named Smith, Or Jones, or whatever?

Mr. Morris died in 1988, at the age of 87.  I doubt there are many recordings of his voice, let along many, or any other, recordings of the story of his name.

I intend to donate these recordings to the audio history collection of the State Historical Society.

———————–

As I was writing the book about the art of the Capitol, it dawned on me late in the process that I had not written about the three paintings in the Senate Lounge of Senators A. Clifford Jones, Richard Webster, and Michael Kinney.  In writing the story of Kinney, I recalled that I had on tape a fascinating story about him that Webster had told me.

Michael Kinney served 56 years in the state senate, longer than any legislator in the nation served in one chamber of any state legislature.  He was a Democrat from the rough and tumble “Kerry Patch” Irish neighborhood of St. Louis once dominated by two Irish gangs, the Hogans and Egan’s Rats, a group that’s been described as “the first full-time gangsters to make regular headlines.”   He succeeded his brother, Thomas, an Irish tavern-keeper known as “Snake,” who handled the political issues for the gang before he died in 1912 during his second term in the Senate.

Michael served until he lost a primary bid for re-election in 1968.  He seldom spoke in the Senate and when he did his voice was so soft that many of his colleagues could not hear him in those days before there was a public address system. But his seniority and his knowledge of Senate procedure gave him great power throughout his career.

He sponsored many bills that became laws in his career, the one that is his most visible legacy being the one that created the state cancer hospital in Columbia.  For most of three decades he was part of a Senate triumvirate that exerted enormous influence.  He, Senators Michael E. Casey of Kansas City, who served from 1909-1944 after serving six years in the House, and Senator Joseph Brogan of St. Louis, who was in the Senate from 1909 until his death in 1940, were Presidents pro Tem four times among them and chaired powerful committees throughout their careers.  The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said Casey “was the spellbinder of the group…Brogan..was the witty, nimble floor fighter, while Senator Kinney was the subtle, behind-the-scenes diplomat, string-puller and compromiser.”

Senator Webster, who was from Carthage, was in the House before moving across the rotunda to the other chamber.  He remembered when he and Kinney were on a conference committee of House and Senate members working on a compromise of a bill that had passed both chambers in different form and Webster—then in the House—was complaining about Governor Forrest Smith.  Kinney told him, “I’ve told every House member and every Senate member that’s arrived on the scene and got mad at whoever the Governor was, ‘He’s just a Governor.  Those fellows come and go.’”

Webster remembered that Kinney sat on a high stool in his office at 7 a.m. each day of the legislative session, stripped to his waist with a table cloth wrapped around his neck while his grandson-in-law, State Auditor Haskell Holman, shave him.  Kinney sat with his back to the open door.

“If you looked, you’d see a bullet hole in his back, “Webster told me.  It was a scar that Webster said remained from an assassination attempt during an Irish gang war.  Kinney was shot four times—in the chest, both arms, and in the jaw—in 1924.  He later identified a police photograph of a recaptured escaped mental patient as the man who shot him.  But there was considerable doubt even then that Kinney told the truth.  Although suspicions lingered for decades that his near-assassination was part of the heated rivalry between the Rats, of which Kinney remained a part, and the rival Hogans, Kinney never commented about the issue publicly.” 

Privately, though, according to Webster, he did talk about it.  And Webster told me about one of those conversations in the privacy of Kinney’s office.

“Someone would say, ‘Senator, do you remember a fellow named Jimmy O’Brien?’  And he would say, ‘Jimmy O’Brien.  He was a nice fellow.  Whatever happened to him?’”

“Well, what had happened to him was that Mike Kinney could never identify his assailant although his assailant was about three or four feet from him when he fired the shot.  But a month later, Jimmy O’Brien did rise to the surface of the Mississippi River.”   

There is, as far as I know, no other telling of that story except for the version Richard Webster related on tape to me that day.

Another case of the journalist collecting the first draft of history.

——————

I have in my tape library several hours of Senate floor debate in which one of the greatest Ozark story tellers ever to serve in the legislature embarked on some of his long, windy expositions on some subject that might or might not be related to the issue at hand.  There is no doubt that many of the stories Danny Staples told were pure fabrications or old jokes recycled for the moment.  But many of his stories came straight from his early life as the son of a grocery-store owner in rural southeast Missouri.

In March, 2002, the Senate was working on an election reform bill triggered by some of the big problems at the polls in St. Louis in 2000.  Staples launched into a story that was not particularly original except in the telling.

“I’m not going to say what country it was because I don’t think the statute of limitations have run out yet. But I can remember full well an old boy that was a sheriff down in one of the southeast counties.  And this young, handsome, debonair, good-lookin’ candidate was running against the incumbent state senator down there.  And the old retired official down there had named his successor and they came in and they both liked this young, handsome, debonair good-lookin’ fellow that was running the incumbent.

“One night it was raining, two days before the election, and the old man and the boy, his protégé, were out in one of those famous Civil War cemeteries down there in southeast Missouri.  One of them had a flashlight; the other one had a legal pad and a pen. And they were taking names off the Civil War cemetery headstones, been there since 1865.

“They were voting absentee ballots for this young, handsome, debonair challenger of this old retiring state senator. 

“And…the old official that was retiring had the flashlight and he was looking at a headstone there in the middle of the night and it was weather-beaten; it was worn from the hail, from the wind, from freezing rain, and the atmosphere.  And the young official that replaced the old official looked at him and said, ‘Hey. Pop, we can’t get the name off this headstone.  It’s been worn out. It’s no longer legible.  Let’s move over to the next one.’  The old man looked at the boy, and he says, ‘Cubby, this man has got just as much right to vote as this man.’’   

“That’s the way you run an honest election.”

Staples told the Senate after that, “You don’t need laws on the books to protect the innocent.  We only need laws on the books to protect those that would be corrupt and greedy and grafty in the greatest society in the world, and that’s the electoral process.”  I have read the transcript of that remark time and again and I’ll be darned if I can figure out the logic in it.

Staples usually tipped off his storytelling by asking a Senator who was handling a bill, ‘Would be interested to know, Senator….” Even if the Senator was NOT interested, Staples would proceed to inform him—and everybody else.

He decided to tell another story during this particular debate but the other senator—Doyle Childers who later became director of the Department of Natural Resources under Matt Blunt—answered “No, Senator, at this moment I’m not interested to know that, but thank you Senator.” At which point Staples stopped trying to debate and just asked to speak on the bill.

“Mr. President, it comes to my remembrance and my recollection now that they had another election in southeast Missouri…One day down in southeast Missouri, the day after the election, this man about fifty years old was sitting on the courthouse steps.  He was crying.  Tears rolling down his face.  A business partner of his walked by and he said, ‘What’s wrong?  Has there been a tragedy?’  He said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Yesterday was election day.’  He said, ‘My daddy’s been dead for nine years.  He come home and voted yesterday, didn’t even stop to see momma and I.’” 

(The Senate dissolved into laughter for several seconds on both sides of the aisle.)..

Staples went on:  “Now, I’ve won ten elections and lost one.  There was never voter fraud in the 20th Senatorial District.  Oh, sometimes we Democrats voted on Tuesday, sent out a press release, the Republicans would vote on Wednesday.  But the polls weren’t open on Wednesday as you well know. So the Democrats always won.”

Term limits finally got Danny Staples—one of the many egregious shortcomings of that misguided concept that relies on public apathy and civic irresponsibility for its support—after twenty years in the Senate preceded by six years in the House.  Not long after he was forced out of office, Danny Staples and his wife were getting ready for a trip.  He had taken the family motor home to town to get it all cleaned up and fueled up.  He drove it home and dropped dead of a heart attack on July 22, 2002. The legislature has been far too serious since he left.

We journalists not only get to witness events as they unfold and capture the stories that people tell in that process, the journalist also comes across long-forgotten stories in the course of our curiosity. I don’t remember how I stumbled on this last story but I filed it away, knowing I’d have a chance to tell it to somebody sometime. And son-of-a-gun, here is that opportunity.

Missouri history has LOT of wonderful animal stories.  Here’s one.

Many years ago I knew the first three-time Speaker of the House.  He served in the 1930s, was the Speaker for three of his four terms, and one night my longtime friend Clyde Lear and I sat down with him after dinner and recorded him telling some stories.   He told us about a day that the House and the Senate met together to see a special guest who was multi-lingual, including Morse Code, and apparently was clairvoyant to boot.

His name was Jim. Jim the Wonder Dog.  Folklorist and folk song-teller Bob Dyer wrote a song about “Jim, Jim, Wonderful Jim.  Never was a dog smarter than him.” At least not according to Bob Dyer.

Former House Speaker John G. Christy, who later was Mayor of Jefferson City for twelve years, recalled that there was no way Jim’s owner, Sam VanArsdale, could have given the dog any signals that day in the House of Representatives when—during an informal joint session—he was told in Morse Code to find the man known as the “Beau Brummel of the House.”   Jim trotted down the main aisle, paused, then turned in and wound his way through a row of desks and put his paw on the leg of a state representative who WAS known as the Beau Brummel of the House.  He was also told to find the sponsor of the horse racing bill, and he picked that man out from the crowd in the House Chamber.  That’s another story I recorded more than 35 years ago.

I love the way Bob Dyer concluded his song about Jim:

“So the next time you hear about man’s best friend,

            Think about that wonderful dog named Jim.

            And remember,

            Dogs can be just as smart as some humans are….dumb.”  

God gave people one mouth and two ears for a reason. Journalists are blessed by working in a profession that relies on that statement and having the tools to capture the stories that prove its truth.

 

The first special session, and an echo (Corrected and enlightened)

Governor Greitens talked in his post-session news conference last Friday evening of calling a special session of the legislature to take up issues he was disappointed the legislature didn’t act upon this year.  He spoke of “summer school,” although some legislators are likely to suggest to him that a special session, if he decides to call one, would be more economical and might be more productive if it ran concurrently with the veto session in September.  Extraordinary Sessions, as they are formally termed, are seldom called immediately after exhausted lawmakers drag themselves home after a regular session, even a relatively non-contentious one.

Governors are seldom as pleased as legislative majority leaders (whatever the majority might be) with results of a legislative session.  And although they, and several others, can think of some issues that deserve special session consideration, governors most often have decided to let things cool down, to do some between-sessions discussions, and try again in January.

We have counted sixty times that the legislature has been summoned back for special sessions—although other scholars might have a different number.  We are not counting the two times the Rebel legislature met after fleeing from Jefferson City ahead of Union troops’ arrival.  Some would argue they were not special sessions, just continuations of the regular session by the elected legislators.

The FIRST special session happened before we were a state and some things in state government that are part of our political genes today were there at the beginning.  Some of the attitudes that we saw in this 2017 session were there almost two centuries ago and the sentiments behind one piece of 2017 legislation are an echo of what happened in that first special session in 1821.

A two-hundred year old document in the state archives is the first petition from the citizens of the Territory of Missouri to ask for statehood.  Two years later, in 1819, Congress was debating the issue when New York Congressman James Tallmadge tried to add an anti-slavery amendment to a bill authorizing the territory to write a state constitution that would, upon Congressional approval, clear the way for statehood.  Senator Henry Clay led the compromise effort that was approved on March 3, 1820.  Missouri Constitutional Convention delegates met on June 12 and in the next thirty-eight days drafted the document, which was sent to Washington for approval.

The first state legislature met from September 18-December 12, 1820, passing the first laws that would apply to Missourians as citizens of the United States—once Congress approved the State Constitution. But a provision in that constitution had become a sticking point.

Passionate debate in Congress about whether slavery would be allowed in Missouri when it entered the union had taken a new direction. Although Missourians had welcomed the Missouri Compromise that allowed slave-holding Missouri to enter the union with the simultaneous admission of Maine to keep the free state/slave state balance, many chafed at the power of Congress to become involved in “an internal matter,” in this case, whether slavery could exist in the state.  U. S. Senator-to-be Thomas Hart Benton, in fact, argued that Congress had no right to ban slavery anywhere—although the Missouri Compromise did exactly that.

The issue of slavery, per se, was therefore transformed into an issue of states’ rights when delegates were picked to write the first State Constitution.  Although some historians suggest the majority of the delegates opposed slavery, the state’s rights issue shaped part of that first document, which is why it contained provisions prohibiting the legislature from ever passing laws prohibiting the entry of slaves into Missouri, forbidding emancipation without permission of a slave-holder, AND requiring the legislature to pass a law forbidding any free Negroes and Mulattoes from living in Missouri “under any pretext whatsoever,” although about 300 free Negroes already lived here.

That contrary spirit is what led to the first special session of the legislature—because Congress was not going to tolerate Missouri limiting the movement of any free people into any state where they wanted to live.

Congress, after some tense discussions that included some talk of secession by southern states, refused to approve the constitution until that provision forbidding free Negroes and mulattoes from moving here was removed. That’s why state lawmakers returned to St. Charles in the summer of 1821 to meet a congressional mandate to make sure the legislature “never pass any law preventing any descriptions of persons from going to, and settling in, the said state, who now are, or hereafter may become citizens of any states in this union.”

Do it or you can’t join the union, said Congress.

Missouri’s legislature did it.  But it made sure Congress knew Missouri didn’t like being forced to do it.  The delegates at that special session meeting in June, 1821 maintained Washington had no power to attach any conditions to statehood and they refused to change the Missouri Constitution.  However, they did pass a resolution promising the state would not pass any laws limiting the rights of free Negroes and Mulattoes.  The House committee that came up with the resolution said in its report:

…The general government have no right, when a territory, as Missouri was, shall have been authorized to form a constitution of state government for herself, to interfere with the free and unrestrained right, by imposing any previous conditions or restrictions whatever.

The resolution also complained Congress had not applied extra standards to any other state, calling the requirement regrettable and noted that Negroes and Mulattoes “had no pretention [sic]” of citizenship in any of the 23 other states and could not be considered full citizens of Missouri even if they chose to live here. Lawmakers reluctantly approved it on June 26, 1821.

Congress felt Missouri had slapped it in the face but Henry Clay convinced Congress to accept the resolution instead of starting a new fight.  President James Monroe signed the proclamation admitting Missouri to the Union on August 10.

Forty years later, to the day, the worst battle of Missouri’s Civil War was fought on the Oak-covered hills around Wilson’s Creek, south of Springfield.  The first special session of the Missouri legislature is seen by many historians as the concluding segment of the first of a series of ultimately futile efforts to keep the union from falling apart.

Incidentally, the “free negro and mulatto” agreement lasted only four years.  Once Missouri was in the Union, it would not be voted out, and in the regular session of 1825, the legislature adopted a law requiring any free Negroes or Mulattoes to produce written certificates of their free status before they could live here.

With the help of King Marc Powers, ruler of the Kingdom of Arcania, a small territory set aside within the Missouri Capitol, and Dana Miller, the Assistant Chief Clerk of the House, we have looked back at the last twenty years of special sessions and have come up with these examples of reasons and seasons:

In 1997, Governor Mel Carnahan called two special sessions. One session began thirty minutes after the adjournment of the regular session on May 16 because two appropriations bills were not passed by the deadline.  The legislature acted quickly and adjourned six days later.   He also called lawmakers back for a special session coinciding with the veto session in September to enact acceptable sections of an economic development bill he had vetoed and to pass a new law allowing local tourism taxes to be enacted after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled the original law unconstitutional. 

Governor Holden, in 2003, vetoed four appropriations bills and called a special session to re-pass them.  Before that special session adjourned, he signed two of the re-passed bills but vetoed two others which the legislature re-passed.  Holden signed them although he objected to them but the legislature would not change them and another special session was out of the question, so he signed them.  He called another special session, however, for September to consider revenue increases the legislature refused to consider in the regular session.  The legislature wasn’t interested in September, either, further supporting the idea that the governor proposes and the legislature disposes. 

Governor Blunt called a special session in September, 2005 to pass new abortion restrictions the legislature had been unable to pass in the regular session.  In 2007, he called a special session to let contracts have access to bond money for bridge repairs and to pass new economic development taxation.

Governor Nixon’s special session history was a mixed bag.  He called a special session in June of 2010 to pass $150 million in tax incentives to keep the Ford Claycomo plant at full production.  He called a special session for September, 2011 for tax credit overhauls and incentives for making Lambert-St. Louis Airport a hub for trade with China.  But majority Republicans could not get together to pass those bills and they called it a day and let the sixty-day schedule run out. (Note to Governor Greitens: Make sure you have the votes to pass the legislation you want before convening a special session.) The legislature was called back in December, 2013 in an effort to pass last-minute tax incentives to convince Boeing to move production of its 777X airliner from the state of Washington to St. Louis. The legislature rushed the incentives through by Boeing’s deadline, but the company got a better deal from Washington and stayed there.   In late 2014, Nixon called a special session to allocate money to pay the Highway Patrol and the National Guard for the security services it provided in Ferguson. But he cancelled the call three days later when legislative leaders pointed out a way to pay those bills from the existing budget.

Incidentally, Governor Hearnes holds the record by calling three special sessions in 1970—before Missouri’s constitution was changed to provide for annual sessions. 

The first Missouri Constitution and the ensuing first special session set a pattern of contrariness that was played out in this year’s reluctant approval of a law allowing driver’s licenses that comply with the federal Real ID law, passage of which is the latest example of Missouri’s defiance of federal regulations that eventually crumbles after lengthy grumbling.

In 2017, Missouri lawmakers finally buckled to federal pressure—as their legislative ancestors did in that first special session—and passed a Real ID compliance law.  But they, as did their ancestors, attached some language to prove they weren’t just getting in line.

Take that, Washington.

Again.

The filibuster 

How did a word that once meant “piracy” become a valuable tool in the American political system, then a weapon, and now a word that some hold in such low regard that they think it should be eliminated from our political process?  Let us offer a subjective examination.

We turn to William Safire, a reporter then speech-writer for President Nixon (Pat Buchanan gets a lot of credit for the most serious flame-throwing remarks of that administration) and later a columnist for the New York Times whose column “On Language” was always a favorite read for this correspondent.  A year before his death in 2009, the last version of Safire’s Political Dictionary was published by Oxford University Press.  It’s a wonderful resource for any who follow politics and want to understand its lingo.

Back in the 1500s, governments such as Britain and France contracted with private ship owners known as “privateers” to, in effect, wage war on ships flying enemy flags—at the time, Spanish ships.  More often than not, says Safire, these privateers became just plain pirates.  “Privateer” is rooted in a Dutch word, “vrijbuiter,” which translates to “freebooter,” a word equated to “pirate.”   In French, the word became “flibustier.”  In Spanish, it was “filibustero,”  words that were translated into English as “filibuster.”

In the mid-1800s, American filibustering expeditions took place in Central America, private military expeditions that sought to seize control of countries.  One of those taking part in one of most famous, or infamous, such expeditions was James Carson Jamison who was part of William Walker’s filibustering effort and wrote With Walker in Nicaragua. He later served the Confederacy in the Civil War and was the state’s Adjutant General (1885-1889) under Governor John S. Marmaduke, a former Confederate General.

It appears the word was first applied politically was during debate in the U. S. House on January 3, 1853.  Democrats favored organizing an expedition to take Cuba away from Spain.  Whigs were opposed.  One Democrat, Abraham Venable of North Carolina, crossed over to the Whig side, arguing that the United States should not engage in piracy to acquire Cuba.  A Venable opponent, Congressman Albert Brown said, “When I saw my friend standing on the other side of the House, filibustering, as I thought, against the United States…I did not know what to think.”  The word quickly became identified with efforts to block passage of legislation.  It remains so today.

Your observer has observed that tactic being applied numerous times consuming hours of his life that added nothing to his knowledge or entertainment.  Some had memorable moments but most were as interesting as three-day-old dry toast.

Filibusters work best when they are respected as tools that protect the minority and give it valuable weight in shaping public policy. They are their worst in times of agenda-driven super-majorities that see no reason to recognize the validity of minority positions.

Filibusters have been useful in forcing compromise, sometimes broadening the public policy under consideration, sometimes protecting the rights and privileges of those who feel a piece of legislation lessens their standing within society or in the economy, sometimes avoiding mistakes that otherwise would be enacted with the original proposal, sometimes forcing order into a proposal that endangers services beneficial to a broader public while granting a perceived unfair advantage to a particular segment of the people.

The filibuster works best in a partisan body in which the numbers force a recognition that the goals of one side cannot be attained without the cooperation of the other.  While a simple majority might be reached by one side alone, the limits imposed by the clock and the calendar lessen that possibility if the minority side consumes hours and days, particularly as the hours and days of a session dwindle.  The utility of a filibuster increases as time grows short—as it is now in the legislature—because the scenario not only involves the issue at hand but other issues that might never be reached because the time to reach them is being consumed by those holding the floor.

There are ways to end filibusters—a cloture vote in Washington, a previous question motion in Jefferson City that seeks to immediately end debate and immediately go to a vote. In previous years, when the partisan breakdown of the legislature was more balanced than it has been in recent years, the PQ—as it is called—was almost never used because both sides knew that it could be used against them if the majorities switched. Additionally, there was an acknowledgement that today’s enemy has to be tomorrow’s friend if you hope to get your bill passed.  But as the majority-minority margins increase, the need for reciprocity dwindles and in time becomes irrelevant.

As that happens, the minority has a tendency to become more strident, more irritating to the majority—which is more tempted to shut down the minority with a parliamentary motion. Who cares about friendships in such situations?  It also should be noted that the majority is less likely to shut off debate if the filibuster involves members of the majority party.

The minority, however, is not completely disarmed in such situations. A couple of years ago, the minority in the senate reacted when the previous question was called on a bill in the last week of the legislative session and nothing passed the rest of the way.

Many observers in Washington have pronounced the filibuster dead after the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch.  Perhaps it is in a climate in which sixty votes, not just the majority, was required for action on some issues.  But back here in the states, it remains a tool—some say, a protection—in simple majority climates where there are no rules that otherwise limit debates but where unwritten rules about honoring the tradition and the reasons for filibusters usually prevail. Usually.

Has Washington killed the filibuster?  Or has it just turned organized participants there into privateers?