Early in the upcoming legislative session, the Minnesota Senate will again take up an issue sure to spark debate and division among its members: whether to allow senators to drink water while on the Senate floor.
The upper chamber of the Legislature has long prided itself on tradition and a particular view of decorum. Senators are banned from looking at each other during debates, and are required to instead look only at the president of the Senate while speaking. Men — including both senators and members of the press — are required to wear a jacket and tie on the Senate floor, while women have less specific rules but are expected to dress professionally. Anyone on the Senate floor is banned from bringing in food or beverages, including water.
Supporters of the rules, who have continually voted down attempts to change them, say they are needed to enforce order — and protect the Senate’s antique desks from water damage.
But critics, including Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said his colleagues’ dedication to protecting the rules borders on the absurd. When the session starts, he’s hoping to gather bipartisan support for a proposal that would allow senators to consume water, so long as it is kept in sealed containers.
“We’re not three-year-olds who need sippy cups,” said Westrom, who added that this would be his second shot at repealing the water ban. “We’re adults who can responsibly have a bottle of water, with a screw cap that seals it, on the Senate floor.”
Westrom last raised the issue in April 2015. When his proposal to allow members of the Senate to consume water did not pass, he tried again, suggesting an exemption from the water ban for pregnant and nursing women. That plan lost too, with 51 senators voting no and 10 voting yes. (A separate proposal to drop the rule requiring senators to look only at the Senate president was also voted down.)
Westrom, who previously served in the House, notes that members of that chamber are allowed to consume both food and drinks, including soda. So does Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, who was elected to the Senate in November and intends to support Westrom’s effort. Laine said she knows senators have access to water in a nearby break room, but worries that trips away from the Senate floor for thirst-quenching purposes detract from senators’ duty to listen to ongoing debates.
“When you’re in committees, it’s fine to have water with you, and when you’re on the floor for a short period, an hour, no problem,” she said. “But on the floor for hours and hours and hours, I like to listen to the debate, I like to be present for it, and I need to drink water.”
But Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said those type of concerns are the kind he’s heard for years from former House members who move on to the Senate and find themselves facing a new set of rules.
He said the water proposal is unnecessary because he and his colleagues don’t have to go far to get a drink of water, and risks eroding the tradition and history of the Senate — literally. The desks used by senators were first installed at the Capitol in 1905, Bakk said, and they are too old to be refinished if damaged by a spilled bottle of water.
“I want to do my part in preserving the history of all the votes that have been taken at all of those historic desks,” he said.
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said she believes allowing water would be a clear break in decorum, and intends to oppose Westrom’s proposal.
“Members are, for the most part, no more than 20 feet away from getting a drink of water in the retiring room,” she said. “The only person who needs to generally stay in the chamber for a long time is the president, and I don’t even support that being done. That’s why we have assistants, and a president pro tem to give the president a break.”
Westrom said he believes it’s time for an evolution in some of the Senate’s thinking on what does or doesn’t amount to a disruption. He noted that when he was growing up, his school did not allow students to carry water bottles into the classroom. Now, his elementary school-aged children are encouraged to bring and consume water to build healthy habits.
“It’s time to make this change and promote the convenience and the healthiness of water,” he said.
It’s unclear how much support Westrom will have when he introduces his plan, likely sometime in January. Seventeen of the 50 senators who voted against his last effort will no longer be in the Senate, and Republicans will move into the majority and take on new leadership positions.
“The Senate is a very esteemed body,” said Bakk, who will lose his majority leader status when legislators convene in January. “It operates much different from the House, and when I was a leader I wanted to preserve that. It’s a new Legislature with a bunch of new House members, and who knows what they’ll decide. But my vote will be no.”