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The Missouri General Assembly is in full swing, and legislators are beginning the arduous process of lawmaking through months of hearings and negotiations in legislative committees.
Although bills need approval from majorities in both the House and Senate before they are sent to the governor’s desk, committees handle the intricate details. The fate of a piece of legislation falls almost entirely on the shoulders of the committee chairs, who are members of the majority party and appointed by leaders of the two chambers.
This year, Republicans have a wide majority in both chambers. In the House, Speaker Dean Plocher, a Republican from St. Louis County, has made appointments for committee chairs and assigned Republican members to most of his chamber’s 36 standing committees. In the Senate, committee chairs and appointments are designated by the president pro tem, Sen. Caleb Rowden, a Republican from Columbia.
As a part of The Beacon’s series “DIY Democracy,” we broke down the basic information on how committees work and the power that committee leadership has in crafting, advancing or stalling legislation in the Missouri General Assembly.
What are committees and how do they work?
Committees consist of a chairperson, a vice chair and a ranking member — the voice of authority for the minority party — and a bipartisan mix of members, although the number of members varies from committee to committee.
They are where bills get their first hearing, where the public can testify on a piece of legislation, and where compromise primarily happens.
Leaders of both parties assign members to committees each year, although members often serve on the same committee for multiple years. Members generally state their preferences, and leadership tries to ensure that all areas of the state are represented in each committee.
“A lot of it has to do with your background,” Rep. Jonathan Patterson of Lee’s Summit, the House majority floor leader, told The Beacon. “So if you’re a nurse, or a doctor, or a physical therapist, you’d be a natural fit for a health care committee.”
Seniority also plays a role, Patterson said. “Some of the committees are known to be better than others, so if you have seniority, you can kind of ask for those committees.”
In Missouri, big Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate give leaders of those chambers considerable power to make appointments that best suit their priorities, said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri.
“Committee chairs do get shuffled around. That is really done by the leadership, with the intention of putting people into place who are likely to do what the leadership would like them to do,” Squire said. “It doesn’t mean that committee chairs don’t have some discretion – it’s an important and powerful position. But generally in Missouri, the committees are going to produce what the leadership wants.”
This year, House Speaker Plocher is prioritizing legislation centered around school choice and parental rights in school systems.
To chair the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, he selected Rep. Brad Pollitt, a Republican from Sedalia who is a former educator and school administrator. Pollitt has already introduced a bill to establish open enrollment.
Rep. Ben Baker, a Republican from Neosho, is the vice chair on the same committee and is sponsoring legislation to establish further transparency in public education and establish open enrollment policies in the state, as well as a program for extended learning opportunities.
In the Senate, Rowden said he’d like to see Medicaid coverage extended for postpartum mothers. He appointed Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, a Republican from Arnold, as the chairwoman of that committee. Coleman has introduced a bill to continue Medicaid benefits when a family’s income rises. She was previously a member of the House, where she was the chair of the Children and Families Committee and sponsored legislation in the past to make abortion illegal in Missouri at the detection of a fetal heartbeat.
Smaller subcommittees also operate throughout the session, and special committees can be formed by the House speaker or Senate president pro tem to address a particular issue.
There are also joint committees that comprise members from both the House and the Senate.
How powerful are committee chairs?
Committee chairpersons decide whether they want to hold a hearing for a bill that has been referred to their committee, or leave it to wither on the vine.
“They can control the schedule, they can control which bills get brought up for a hearing,” Squire said. “The leadership isn’t always interested in each and every measure that will find its way through the committee process, so committee chairs can have considerable influence over the bills and jurisdiction of their particular committee.”
Chairing a committee is a coveted role that many lawmakers work toward for years.
“Chairmanships get given to the people that, you know, negotiated some bit of power with the speaker or made agreements of some kind, or frankly raised a lot of money for the caucus,” St. Louis Rep. Peter Merideth, the ranking minority member of the House Budget Committee, told The Beacon.
“The Republicans tend to put a lot of pressure on their members to raise money, and they get rewarded with better committees and chairmanships if they raise a lot of money.”
How much legislation actually gets referred to a committee?
Lawmakers in Missouri file hundreds of bills each session in hopes of having some of them referred to a committee. That decision is made by the speaker of the House or the president of the Senate. The chamber leaders can choose to not immediately refer a bill to a committee if they want to limit conversation on a topic or if it doesn’t fit with their priorities for the legislative session.
“It’s a really massive power the speaker wields over people,” Merideth said. “If they don’t fall in line, their bills don’t get referred, or their committees don’t get hearings.”
Each bill is constitutionally required to be referred to a committee before the end of the session, so that often happens in the final weeks before the legislature adjourns, when it is too late for the bill to receive much attention.
The number of bills that get referred to committees is dwindling, Merideth said. That’s partly because of the rise in “omnibus bills,” which place many different areas of a certain topic under one piece of legislation. That usually happens when legislators introduce amendments on the floor, debate them and get them added to a bill without as much intervention from committee leaders.
“You end up, especially at the end of session, having bills just have tons of other bills piled on. And sometimes those actually make it through the process that way,” Merideth said.