Punishment of Legislators

Phill Brooks
Missouri News Network

Missouri history provides a fascinating contrast to the US House vote to remove Rep. Marjorie Greene, R-Georgia, from committee assignments.

Unlike Greene, similar disciplinary actions in Missouri against members have avoided a partisan split and required a simple action by the leader of the legislator's own party.

Currently, Missouri has three House members who have been denied committee assignments for conduct allegations.

But the best comparison with Greene arose in 2017 when, like Greene, it involved a social media reference by a Missouri legislator to violence against a top government official.

The social media post by Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, was "I hope Trump is Assassinated!" For Greene, it was a Facebook "like" for a comment suggesting a bullet to the head of the U.S. House speaker.

Unlike the partisan split in Congress to Greene's incendiary statements, the Missouri legislative response to Chappelle-Nadal was a bipartisan affair.

Senate Democratic Leader Gina Walsh, St. Louis County, promptly announced stripping her fellow Democrat of committee assignments.

The first day the Senate was back in session, an overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Republicans approved a resolution censuring Chappelle-Nadal and urging her to resign.

This year, three Missouri lawmakers have been blocked from committee assignments.

First was Rep. Rick Roeber, R-Jackson County, who the new Republican House speaker refused to name to any committee after three of Roeber's daughters had written Rep. Rob Vescovo, R-Jefferson County, about allegations of sexual and physical abuse by Roeber.

Next was Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis, charged by the House Ethics Committee with perjury in its investigation about an allegation that he had sex with an intern in violation of House rules.

A majority of both Republicans and Democrats approved the report which included a recommendation Price be denied committee assignments.

The next day, when the House Democratic leader submitted names of Democrats for the bulk of House committees, Price's name was not to be found.

The latest to be denied committee assignments is Rep. Tricia Derges, R-Christian County, who was removed from her committees by the Republican House speaker after federal felony charges involving fraud in sale of COVID-19 drugs.

While these four Missouri cases reflect a non-partisan approach missing in Congress, they also raise some troubling questions.

Denial of committee assignments significantly diminishes a member's ability to serve the member's constituents and communities.

It is in committees that legislators have far more influence to attach to bills and negotiate compromises before a measure comes before the much larger full chamber.

For example, not one of Chappelle-Nadal's bill's cleared committee in the year following her loss of committee assignments.

Missouri's Constitution offers a way to avoid denying a legislative district of effective representation.

Article III section 18 provides that a chamber "may punish its members for disorderly conduct; and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all members elect, may expel a member."

A special election then could be called to finish the expelled member's term.

An amendment to the House Ethics Committee report concluded there were grounds for expulsion of Price from the chamber. But it was dropped after failing to get a two-third's vote of House members that would be required for an actual expulsion motion.

Another question involves action for conduct prior to joining the legislature, as is the case with Roeber.

If serious, but unproven allegations from a few years earlier can justify rejecting the member from committee assignments, what about unproven charges going back decades earlier.

And, like Derges, there has been no court verdict of guilt involving allegations of criminal conduct.

Of course, if a charge is serious enough as to undermine effectiveness with legislative colleagues, why not just resign as some legislators have done when facing allegations of misconduct?

The Republican House Speaker resigned in 2015 after allegations of sex-texting a legislative intern. Two months later, a former House Democratic leader resigned from the Senate after allegations of sexually harassing interns.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.