That hit a detour today when Senate leaders announced they needed to postpone the session because a senator and some staffers had contracted the virus. But if you’re thinking the postponement was a show of responsibility, think again. By announcing they are still planning to pick up on a special session after Thanksgiving, the Republicans just made a disgusting situation worse.
The regular session of the legislature convenes on January 6. Special sessions — which cost the taxpayers in the tens of thousands of dollars per week — are supposed to be reserved for matters that can’t wait. The closer the special session gets to January 6, the less justifiable its existence. In this case, the Republicans have revealed they are willing to risk their health and that of others just to appease some business benefactors who seek extra protection from liability for negligence during the pandemic. That would be crazy in normal times, but now? Really?
Do the leaders believe the pandemic will go away like magic right after Thanksgiving? This is unthinkable lunacy even by Jefferson City standards.
Democrats can become the grownups in the room — or in this case, outside of the room — by refusing to participate any longer in this abomination. They should insist on doing the only responsible thing, just like most of the rest of us are doing in a pandemic: Stay home. They should boycott this nonsense and make a big point of doing so.
The gatherings mandated by Parson during this pandemic would violate public health regulations in any Missouri county that has rules at all. Cole County, where the state capitol building is nestled in Trump country, has none. Its health department announced 100 new cases in two days last week, and that was before a Saturday rally at which 100 maskless Trump supporters gathered in the capitol for a political rally to support him. Brilliant.
Like the rally, a special session is just the epitome of recklessness. It’s indoors, with legislators often less than six feet apart and no mask mandate in the building — a freedom gleefully flaunted by Republican lawmakers. It defies all common sense, not to mention the health advice of every serious public-health expert in the world, Missouri’s included.
At risk are the 194 current members of the General Assembly, their staffers and the many others employed inside the capitol itself — not to mention the lobbyists for whom the party has been thrown and media members in attendance, among others. The potential health consequences to legislators and staffers in turn extend to their families and friends and the residents of the districts to which they will return from the ominous gathering.
In the early days of the pandemic within the regular legislative session, great care had been taken to observe social distancing, with legislators working from their offices, watching proceedings virtually and coming to the chamber one at a time to speak or vote. That’s all gone out the window now.
The crass politics makes it all worse. If special liability protection were truly needed for nursing homes, drug companies and other big businesses, the Republicans could have enacted them during the regular session last spring.
Indeed, Parson clumsily played his political hand in moving to call for a special session right before the election without any mention of COVID liability. Then, in the safety of his election victory, Parson suddenly discovered the “emergency” need to protect some business benefactors from nasty litigation. If you can be conned into believing this is about mom-and-pop establishments, you have my sympathy.
Traditionally, “tort reform” has been a fine issue for Republicans in Missouri. That’s why new laws in the past decade have rendered Missouri one of the safer states in the U.S. to get away with negligence. But were people to realize these “emergency” measures would, for example, protect nursing homes with a COVID-exemption fig leaf just in case they kill grandma through neglect, it might not seem so sexy politically.
As of Monday, there have been 253,627 COVID cases and 3,480 deaths in Missouri since the beginning of the pandemic, the New York Times reports. If Parson and other Republicans had reacted eight months ago with the same sense of urgency they now display for the health of miscreant businesses, those numbers might be much smaller today.
That’s why Democrats need to plant their flag for doing the right thing with actions, not words. It’s not enough to condemn Parson in press releases and campaign messaging. Their elected leaders need to act with passion and purpose. The national media might even show up for that.
Short term, boycotting the special session might constitute poor politics for Democrats, as it might enrage the governor and his legislative allies, with paybacks to follow. Also, Trumpism still runs amok in Missouri.
But none of that matters for the long game. Democrats need to get back into the habit of going to the mat for what’s right. I’m thinking of the late Governor Mel Carnahan right now. If he could show spine on raising new taxes, they can show spine about a deadly pandemic.
It would be nice if all Americans embraced President-elect Joe Biden’s message of ending partisan bickering. But you can scratch that one off the list for Missouri, with its 70 percent Republican mega-majorities in both chambers and Democrats holding just one statewide office. If the Democrats want to earn back the trust of Missouri voters, they need to become once again a party unafraid of a fight. They need to engage Missourians by showing they’ll make a public stand for their health.
Democrats win on health care. On August 4, they won a historic victory when the voters of red Missouri finally approved Medicaid expansion — by a solid 6.5 percent victory margin — over the screaming objections of the Republican political class. Rural hospitals are tragically overrun with COVID-19 patients and understaffed in health care professionals available to treat them. Their counterparts in St. Louis have similar woes and limited ability to help out. It’s a dreadful way to bring a divided state together.
But people are starting to get it, literally and figuratively. This is a subject on which Democrats can reconnect with some Missourians who have tuned them out. But not if they cower when Republicans raise their fists.
Parson was cornered about the pandemic last Thursday. Predictably, the questions were about Missouri being one of the sixteen states not to have a statewide mask mandate, and Parson continued to demur. Recently, the woke-Socialist Republican governors of North Dakota, Utah and West Virginia enacted mandates, but Missouri’s not quite there.
“It’s time for all of us to take responsibility,” Parson said at a news conference, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We know in the last 30 days these numbers have increased — more than we ever thought they would. That is the hard fact of where this virus is going. We have to do our part.”
With no sense of irony to either Parson or the media, he went on to discuss his plan to extend the special session. Apparently, Parson’s part is to proceed as if the virus were no big deal, and the media’s part is not to question him about it.
The Democrats’ part, on the other hand, might be to conjure memories of iconic President Harry S. Truman. If this buck isn’t going to stop with Parson, perhaps it could stop with them.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).