After a contentious debate about nursing home funding, the Minnesota House was about to adjourn one March evening when Minority Leader Paul Thissen asked for a roll call that would record how each member voted.
Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, ignored Thissen’s gambit and banged the gavel, adjourning the session. DFLers erupted. “Are you kidding me?!” shouted Thissen, whose face at such moments often reddens to the hue of candy apple.
Daudt was acting like a “dictator,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler.
“Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!” they shouted.
It was just another day of theater in the people’s House at the State Capitol in St. Paul, where with every controversial and even sometimes quotidian action like adjourning, melodrama unfolds. Although it sometimes can feel like farce, the theater also carries strategic purpose, as each side tries to frame a story for the next election about how they are the true custodians of Minnesota values, while their opponents are a corruption of same.
While Republicans try to pass bills they say will undo the ravages of big government, DFLers in the minority pester and provoke, call points of order and privilege, move to suspend the rules and offer series of amendments that range from the serious (more spending for schools) to the daffy (requiring a commissioner to buy a metal detector to sweep the Capitol lawn for coins).
“At times, it can be theater of the absurd, that’s for sure,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who is a connoisseur of the byways of the House floor. “And like in every theatrical production, everyone has a part.”
Reps. Greg Davids and Pat Garofalo, veteran Republicans, use a more colloquial analogy: pro wrestling.
The House stands in stark contrast to the staid Senate, with its strict dress code, ban on food and drinks (even water), and a rule prohibiting eye contact between senators during floor debates. Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, was elected to the House in 1976 before moving to the Senate. “When I was in the House, I would come over to the Senate floor and I thought I was walking into a church, it was so quiet,” Cohen said. “Now I walk onto the House floor, I think I’m walking into a circus.”
Before the more chaotic House floor sessions, each side must prepare for hours, readying parliamentary maneuvers and amendments to trip up the other side. Still, because any member can ask another member to “yield” and ask him or her a question, legislators also must think on their feet
Before the Easter/Passover break, DFLers moved to suspend the rules to pass a rail safety bill outside the usual process because they said it was an emergency.
Stone-faced Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, whose mouth sometimes curls into the subtlest grin at such moments, asked the DFLers if they had consulted with their Senate counterparts on the matter.
No? Then how much of an emergency could it be? she asked.
Thissen, a Minneapolis DFLer who acknowledges fearing that his anger can get the best of him after losing his speaker’s gavel because the House flipped to GOP control in last November’s election, picks out first-year legislators in swing districts and questions them, hoping they’ll say something regrettable.
That’s not the only House floor hazing for first-year members. Tradition calls for pranks, including notes to a first-year legislator alerting him or her that the governor has requested an urgent meeting, which inevitably leads to an awkward encounter in the governor’s waiting room.
Although both sides do it, DFLers, in the minority and thus unable to offer their own bills, often settle for scores of amendments to force Republicans into taking tough votes on education or health care spending or gun background checks that could later be used against GOP candidates in 2016 campaign mail pieces that will flood voters’ mailboxes. It’s called a “lit hit.”
Members of the minority party often will seek to throw sand in the parliamentary gears if they think delay might thwart the majority’s agenda.
By the accounts of many, the Republican minority of 2007-08 and its leader Marty Seifert, turned this technique into an art form; Seifert thought of witty rejoinders and oppositional stunts on his long drive to St. Paul from Marshall, on the state’s western border.
“They were masters,” Winkler said. “They were relentless, smart and creative, and they didn’t care about anything but obstruction and making us look bad.”
Winkler, a Golden Valley DFLer known for baiting Republicans with absurdist arguments that would be termed “trolling” if on the Internet, said that House floor sessions are strategic, but that “it’s mostly therapy” — a chance to blow off steam for frustrated members of the minority, who get little role in crafting policy, especially given the polarization of the parties.
But Winkler said the House floor also is an arena for bucking up the troops — DFL grass-roots activists thank him for fighting, however quixotic the battle.
The floor theater is another kind of therapy for some members: Sheer fun.
Garofalo, R-Farmington, chairman of the Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee this session, said with a laugh that when his side is in the minority, he happily plays a “heel,” the pro wrestling term for the villain. He said his hope — made both easier but at times more complicated by social media — is for the public to see legislators as real humans who can laugh at themselves but also get the job done.
While managing his own energy and jobs bill on the House floor recently, Garofalo alternated points about highly complex electric utility law with tongue-in-cheek reminders about the truly important matter at hand: finishing debate before the start of the Minnesota Wild’s NHL playoff game.
Few members appear to be enjoying themselves more than Davids, R-Preston: “Hollywood’s got nothing on us,” he said.
This session’s Taxes Committee chairman sits among long-serving DFL members and enjoys poking fun at his own generous waistline, claiming ignorance about the health clubs to which his tax bill would give a tax benefit.
Davids called his $2 billion tax bill the “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” act, after the schlocky ’80s Journey hit, and he single-handedly turned the House debate into a several-hour disquisition on the song, with multiple members on both sides arguing how the bill did or did not live up to the paean to optimism.
As the debate closed, however, and a prankster put the song on the House loudspeakers, Davids, in his 23rd year, waved his arms to make it stop.
“Great song. Great tax bill. But that is against decorum,” Davids said. “I have too much respect for the institution for that kind of shenanigans and tomfoolery.”
Ricardo Lopez contributed to this report.