When Missouri's Senate recently elected Ron Richard as its president pro tem, they elevated the Joplin Republican to a position more powerful than it was a generation ago.

While the lieutenant governor can preside over the Senate and vote to break ties as the ex-officio president, the real power rests with the president pro tem. This has not always been the case.

For most of the state's history, the lieutenant governor presided over the Senate, appointed committees, assigned bills and largely served as the hand of the governor in controlling the upper chamber.

In the mid 1960s, however, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a one-man, one-vote ruling to reduce gerrymandering – and voter registration was implemented. The power of government was shifted to the voters and away from political machines and governors who had controlled budgets, patronage jobs and everything else in a winner-take-all spoils system.

1968 was a pivotal year in American politics. President Lyndon B. Johnson was not seeking re-election, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, and America watched Watts burn in race riots and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's police club journalists and anti-war protestors outside the Democratic National Convention.

In Missouri, a revolution inside government was taking shape. State Sen. Earl Blackwell, D-Hillsboro, wanted to be lieutenant governor. Gov. Warren Hearnes, however, backed another Democrat, William Morris, who won the primary and November 1968 elections. The outgoing lieutenant governor, Tom Eagleton, had won a U.S. Senate seat. The outgoing senator, Earl Long, resigned a few weeks early so Eagleton could be sworn in and get a head-start on seniority. Hearnes, meanwhile, appointed Morris as lieutenant governor when Eagleton vacated the office in December '68.

On Jan. 8, 1969, the 75th Missouri General Assembly and the Senate elected Blackwell as president pro tem by finalizing a selection made by the majority caucus after the November election. Blackwell warned Morris he did not accept Hearnes’ appointment as legal and that the sergeant-at-arms would remove him if he tried to preside over the Senate before his regular swearing-in. Morris, along with the other statewide officials, were sworn in to office Jan. 13.

The next day, the Senate Journal shows the upper chamber convened, read-in a few bills, recessed, convened, recessed and convened again – all before 11:45 a.m. Then, the Senate Committee on Rules, Joint Rules and Resolutions read in a resolution establishing 94 Rules of the Senate.

In a dramatic shift in power, the rules directed the lieutenant governor as the ex-officio president of the Senate to preside only at the pleasure of the pro tem. The new rules allowed the lieutenant governor to assign bills to committee subject to the approval or reassignment of the pro tem. Further, the pro tem would be parliamentarian of the Senate to decide all points of order, would appoint all committees and would sign all acts and subpoenas.

It was not a change the Senate took lightly. Three attempts were made to amend the new rules to strip out the restrictions on the lieutenant governor's abilities to preside and assign bills, and to delay the implementation of the changes. But the amendments were beaten back in 20-10 votes that broke across party lines. Three senators didn't vote. Another was absent with leave.

The rules were changed. The powers of the lieutenant governor were stripped away. The Senate had seized control of itself from the executive branch. It was a key victory in a battle that would continue long after, and would spill several times into the third branch of government, the judiciary.

Despite the tensions, threats and intense rivalries between two political juggernauts, the transition was peaceful through elections to decide a simple change of rules.

The event left a lasting impression on a new mail room clerk in the Senate, Ron Kirchoff, who later became the Senate administrator and was held in such high esteem that a Senate gallery was named in his honor. One of his maxims, often recounted: “We don’t have to know the politics of the Senate; we only have to know the rules.”
 
Mark Hughes is a former journalist and served as a nonpartisan policy analyst for Missouri government including the state Senate, treasurer's office and the utility-regulating Public Service Commission. He has been an observer and analyst of state government since the administration of Gov. Kit Bond. Hughes, who helps manage Missouri Digital News, can be reached at column@mdn.org.