Jefferson City, MO – The Missouri House voted today on rule changes that could represent a major shift in how the House and Senate republican leaders agree to conference committee reports. New rules, proposed by majority floor leader John Diehl, changed the way substitute amendments — and amendments to existing amendments — are heard and considered on the floor, as well as reducing the number of house members on conference committees from five to three.
Previously, there were five members of each body, split on a three-to-two ratio, with each body sending three republicans and two democrats. Each conference committee report required six signatures and at least two from the house for passage. In the past, with six total conference members signatures required to send the bills to a vote, the senate — who, by nature, stick together much better on legislation than the more adversarial house— would keep intact the five senators on the conference committee and reach out to the two democratic members of the house.
The new house rule requires that two of the three house members of the conference committee’s signatures are required to report the bill out of conference. This ensures that Senate republicans will have to court at least one of the two House republicans on the conference committee, and will effectively halt negotiations between committees designed to cut out House republicans.
Behind the scenes, the chief of staff to House Speaker Tim Jones, Tom Smith is receiving credit for the deft handling of this rule change dramatically increasing the house’s negotiating position with the senate. Some have even suggested that Smith used the debate over smoking in house offices as a well-timed distraction of this far more weighty issue.
Behind the scenes legislative staffers confirm that the house did inform senate leadership of their intention to reduce their number of members on conference committees, and they did not express any reservations. However, just before the rules were set to be voted on, senate leadership expressed some concerns. However, they were told the decision had already been made and the house rules committee already moved forward.
While refusing to speak about the decision-making process leading to the rule change, Smith did comment, “The changes that were made to the rules will provide more transparency in the process, and will grant the house more accurate representation in the conference committees”.
Smith, Jones, and Floor Leader John Diehl are being hailed as heroes in their caucus. The changes will make for an interesting start to the session, and are sure to provide for sparks as the Speaker’s leverage is greatly increased in negotiations with the senate and diminishes the ability of house democrats to affect policy by direct negotiations with the senate in conference.
While this small change will heavily alter the power dynamic, and place republicans on conference committees, most of the floor debate Thursday focused on rules changes dealing with bill amendments.
In previous sessions, Minority parties took to offering substitute amendments on the floor of the House, without distributing them ahead of time, in order to alter or halt legislation. The new rules passed today by a 108-49 party line vote require any and all substitute amendments or amendment changes be submitted in writing before the floor debate. This creates a scenario in which Jones can refuse to recognize any House member he knows to be offering an unfriendly amendment, effectively eliminating the element of surprise from House proceedings.
Republicans on the floor argued the measure increases transparency and prevents drastic changes from being made to a bill on the floor of the House. Democrats, on the other hand, said the move was made to prevent the minority party from making any changes to a bill during debate, effectively rendering them helpless.
“Often, we find problems in a bill during debate on the floor,” Minority Floor Leader Jacob Hummel said. “With these new rules, we can’t make those changes on the floor, we can’t amend that bill during debate.”
Diehl called the change “good government,” and was the primary defender of the change on the floor.
“The minority likes to sneak little things into a bill at the last minute,” Diehl said. “We just want every change or amendment to a bill to be read ahead of time before a vote, this seems pretty straightforward to us.”
Democrat Michael Frame attempted to amend the new rules on the floor to require the House Speaker to recognize any representative on the floor — ensuring an opportunity to offer an amendment.
“I don’t know what the majority is afraid of,” Frame said. “They can vote up or down anything that they want. This is just intended to make sure our voices aren’t heard, to silence the minority.”
The new rules will make it easier for the veto-proof majority of republicans to force legislation through the house and will make it nearly impossible for either party to surprise the other with last minute amendments. Rep Kevin Engler defended the new rules and Diehl on the floor, claiming the change was necessary to keep the minority from defeating legislation.
“[Democrats] will offer up a bill they know won’t pass this chamber, and then they attach an amendment to it, you know, condemning world hunger or something,” Engler said. “So now they’ve put us in a place where they can say ‘Oh, look, the republican party voted against condemning world hunger.’”
Whether the bill will provide the republicans with an even smoother path to approving legislation in the House remains unknown. The full effects of the new rules are uncertain, and will almost certainly unfold during the current session’s floor debates.