The Temporary Gentleman from Cole

There’s a rule in the House that members do not refer to each other by name on the House floor. Instead, you refer to a fellow member as either the “Lady” or “Gentleman” from the county of their district or their district number. It seems kind of silly when you first start. After all, in the real world, it’s impolite to refuse to call someone by their name.

There’s a reason for this. In an ego-stuffed forum, the no-name rule against reminds us that government service should never be about the individual. Every time I rose to speak on the House floor, I was reminded by the Speaker that I did so not as an individual, but as the “Gentleman from Cole” – the temporary voice for 38,000 constituents.

I have learned a lot in these eight years.

1.       Politicians Aren’t All Bad

It’s easy for comedians and self-proclaimed outsiders to trash  politicians. To brand the legislature as corrupt, selfish, arrogant, and short-sighted is sometimes true but usually not. In these past eight years, I have met public servants of both parties and across the ideological spectrum in the House who, though I have disagreements on certain issues, have shown uncommon integrity and intelligence. There are more than I can list in a short column, but those who pop to top are former Speaker Todd Richardson, State Senator Lauren Arthur, House Majority Floor Leader Rob Vescovo, Rep. Bruce Franks, and the six original fellow members of the House Special Investigative Committee on Government Oversight: Reps. Don Phillips, Gina Mitten, Kevin Austin, Shawn Rhoads, Jeanie Lauer, and Tommie Pierson.

2.       Term Limits are Terrible for Missouri

Don’t get me wrong: for selfish reasons, I am glad term limits exist. I briefly considered not running for re-election in 2016, but inertia and a sense of duty to finish out the eight years of term limits prevailed. In their absence of term limits, I may have continued serving in the House for years on end.

But term limits have not caused legislators to be more in touch or responsive to their constituents. Instead, I think the opposite may be true. The unintended consequence has become that many new legislators are planning their next move and jockeying against each other nearly as soon as they arrive for a leadership position, higher office, or committee assignment.

It takes three to four years before a newly elected representative who pays close attention to figure out how things really work and gain subject matter expertise. Some members never figure it out, and just around the time that some do and start to think independently, it’s time to leave. Lobbyists and executive branch agencies fill the vacuum of knowledge. Intended to curb special interests, term limits accomplish the opposite. Many lawmakers routinely abdicate the responsibility of legislation (i.e. their job) to lobbyists.

Lobbyists routinely conceive, draft, vet, and negotiate legislation all the way to the end. By my last two years, I became so fed up with these everyday occurrences that I came up with a short catch-phrase to remind lawmakers who is in charge. “We decide! Not the people in the hallways.” I wondered whether this was a longstanding practice, so I asked historian Bob Priddy. His answer: no. Before term limits, lawmakers understood what the bills did and would negotiate them on their own. The first time he heard a legislator refer to “asking the people in the hallway” about an amendment was post-term limits. It was a sign of bad things to come: a reversal of who’s really in charge most days in the Capitol.

3.       Facts Matter in the Real World, But Not Too Often in Your State Capitol

In my third year, I started referring to the House floor as a fact-free zone – a place where either and both sides could get up and literally make things up as they go along with no factual backing, and expect that partisans on each side would simply shake their heads in agreement and push the corresponding vote, whether green or red.

Fact is: neither party has a monopoly on truth or morality. From my desk in the back of the House chamber, I had a front row seat to watching our country and state grow more tribal by the year.   Two things happened this year that really crystalized it.

The first is relatively trivial. Democratic Rep. Sarah Unsicker offered an amendment that would have established a committee to study Missouri’s maternal mortality rate. This is something that should be relatively non-controversial kickstarted. Instead, it kicked-started an acrimonious hour-long debate, and the amendment failed on a nearly party line vote of 49 to 78. (I voted yes solely on the principal that I despised the tone of the debate against it.) I asked thoughtful colleagues on both sides of the aisle, “What the heck just happened?” They had no good answer. Both were put off by it, and one said it was why they “hated this place.”

The second example was more important. The House Special Investigative Committee on Oversight dominated my Spring. If you asked some Republicans, the committee was a witch-hunt. If you asked some Democrats, it was intended to be a whitewash. In fact, the committee members agreed at the start that we would check   partisanship and ideology at the door. Our purpose was to establish the facts – and let the House decide what to do next. That is what we did. In the process we learned that, even at the state level, lies spread faster than facts, disinformation distorts reality, and that some politicians, political consultants, and lawyers would tear down the institutions that make our democracy strong for a short-term gain.

4.       The Soul of Our Country is At Risk

After these eight long years, my principles have not shifted; the climate, however, is now toxic and tribal. In the Trump era, the national Republican Party has become dangerously close to a cult – with followers willing to throw aside policies, foreign and domestic, that had defined the party for decades, ignore reams of outright lies from the leader, and stand quietly aside as basic human decency is tossed away as a fundamental principle of presidential leadership.

I believe legislators have a higher duty than simply winning elections. There are political values for which one should be willing to lose: the freedoms in our Bill of Rights; the belief in absolute truths; the idea that the rule of law is more powerful than any individual who happens to be in charge at that moment. We now live in a society where these basic principles are under attack for the first time in living memory.  What happens next is hard to predict, but it is nearly guaranteed to be a rough two years. The democratic institutions that have made our country what Ronald Reagan called the last best hope of man on earth will be tested. For these reasons, I leave office more worried about the future of our country than I ever thought I could be. And yet, our country has faced far tougher challenges than this – and come out stronger each time. That is why I remain ever hopeful that America will remain and regain its status as the City on the Hill: with shared ideals of freedom and without the false beliefs that those with whom we disagree on ordinary political issues are stupid or immoral. I remain hopeful that, somehow, some way, as it has every time before, the American people will see our way through the current mess and be stronger because of it.

Thank you for your support these last eight years. It has been a great honor and privilege to serve you.