One More Session – and a Legislator’s Place

The legislature convened this week for the eighth and final session in which I will serve as your state representative. It has been a great honor and privilege to be your voice in the Capitol. On Thursday, at the ceremonial unveiling of his official portrait, former Governor Jay Nixon explained that he eventually came to view his job in public service as helping people whom he would never meet, who would never know his name, and who would have no idea he had ever done anything to help them. I agree.

There have been great moments of satisfaction from feeling of a job well done – and moments of gloom from failure. Such is life. Sometimes when I think of the things I’ve learned over these eight years, I think of Bob Seger – “wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

As I reflect on my eight years, I noticed something on the House website that puts things in perspective – this week we are beginning the second regular session of the 99th General Assembly. It is the 198th time in our state’s history that this has happened. For those nearly 200 years, our statehouse has been filled with men and women of goodwill – and also a fair share of opportunists, con men, and people whose ambition you could see through a brick wall.

This fall, my son Atticus did a project for a school where he researched the history of our state Capitol. He accumulated primary resources about when and why the capital moved here, and how Sedalia tried to steal it from us. He also interviewed Bob Priddy, who is practically a primary source of his own when it comes to Missouri state history.

Priddy told the story of how Sedalia tried to seize the capital in 1895 via legislative hijacking. One morning early in session, a bevy of people from Sedalia stormed the Capitol by train, where a state representative named John Bothwell introduced a resolution for a statewide vote on the House floor to move the capital to Sedalia – and had it passed through both chambers before the day was through. And just like that, in about half a day, Jefferson City faced losing our status as the seat of state government. It was not to be for Sedalia. Jefferson City organized, and with support from St. Louis retained its status by a wide margin in the statewide vote.

Priddy spoke of Joe Folk, governor in 1905 who rode into office on a string of unbelievable corruption prosecutions; of Tom Pendergast and the Machine; and of State Treasurer Larry Brunk, who, during the Depression, parlayed official state taxpayer deposits into certain banks into personal payments from those very same banks. Treasurer Brunk was impeached by the Missouri House, but his former colleagues in the state Senate could not find the will to convict.  

These are just a few low lights from our state government’s checkered past. And Missouri is not unique. Governments are inherently prone to corruption — both the criminal kind and the softer corruption that settles in over time. Soft corruption happens when a legislator sponsors a piece of legislation just because a lobbyist asked, without knowing anything about the subject or asking any questions. It happens when a legislator grows lazy and makes decisions about votes without reading the actual bill or considering what it does, but just asking who’s for it and against it.  

It also happens when their heart or head tells them a vote is wrong, but they do it anyway because of pressure, inertia, an unwillingness to stick their neck out, or for some favor to be traded later. Instead of doing what is right, the path of convenience and personal advantage is  taken instead.  Of course, it’s human nature to avoid confrontation and to have ambition. The question is not whether it will happen, but how often and whether it will happen on votes that have serious impact on the lives of people beyond the Capitol’s marble halls.  

A colleague once explained the “favor to be named later” idea to me when he tried to flip my vote on a bill. “I disagree with your no vote, but even you can’t say this is a huge deal,” he said. “And, you know, you may have a bill that comes along where someone else might be on the fence, and you’re gonna need their vote. Why don’t you just throw a vote here, and then when your bill comes up, the favor will get returned?”

This is legislative utilitarianism: the idea that good ends justify bad means to get there. It may help clear a legislator’s conscience if they don’t think too hard about it, but it’s just as flawed as utilitarianism anywhere else. Doing something you believe to be wrong (even if it’s just a little wrong) under the belief that it will have a good result on an unrelated issue can justify nearly anything so long as you are an optimist about that potential good result in the future. And it’s addictive. Once you do it once, it’s all the more difficult to resist the logic the next time around.  I feel that I have resisted the temptation more than most, but I speak from experience: these trades are not worth it. Not even the little ones. They whittle away at your soul, and, as Jesus said in Mark 8:36, “For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”

There’s no legislative cure for human nature. So, what is to be done? I think the answer for the individual legislator is no different from the answer in the real world: when delusions of grandeur tempt, where ambition or fear of political consequences threaten, it’s time to take a step back and consider the larger picture. Individually, we are insignificant. Legislators do not have legacies. (Nor do governors for that matter.) As a general rule, people do not remember politicians other than the president. The realization of one’s own insignificance and the humility that emanates is a better antidote to corruption than any law ever passed. Instead of serving oneself and ambition, better to serve the Lord, our families, and our communities.

In my eight years, I’ve seen the worst and the best aspects of human nature: greed, pride, vanity, laziness, and vindictiveness are here every day. And so are diligence, humility, sacrifice, charity, and compassion. The Missouri state legislature, is a place where, in spite of our human weaknesses, when things go right — paraphrasing Gov. Nixon —people of goodwill can work together in service to make great differences in the lives of people who will never meet, who will never know our name, and who will never know we ever did anything to help them.