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The purpose behind those long, ‘pointless’ legislative debates

Here’s why DFLers keep speechifying even when, as the minority party, they know they will lose.

From the moment that most bills and amendments hit the floors of the legislative chambers this session, everyone pretty much knows what the outcomes will be.

If Republicans support the measure, the bills will pass. If they don’t, they won’t.

So why the lengthy debates when the reality is that few in the chambers are listening anyway?

Wednesday’s Senate debate over the Voter ID constitutional amendment, for example, was classic. Everyone knew what the outcome was going to be long before the session opened.

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Still, for more than three hours, DFLers repeated their arguments on why they believe the amendment is a bad idea.

Passion and point-making

There was passion in DFL voices and actions.

Sen. John Marty, hands trembling, spoke of how if the amendment passes, it will be difficult for the homeless to vote in Minnesota.

“The homeless are not bums,” Marty said. “Many of them are Vietnam War veterans.  … They are citizens with the same rights you and I have.”

There were “gotchas.”

Minneapolis DFLer Ken Kelash, for example, set up a little question-and-answer session with Scott Newman, the Hutchinson Republican who was the lead senator on the ID amendment.

(Some background: Minnesota long has been proud of the fact that it leads the nation in voter turnout. Republican legislators constantly were using Indiana as an example of a state where a photo ID system is in place.)

“What percent of the people vote in Indiana?” Kelash asked Newman.

“1.5 million more voted than in Minnesota,” Newman responded.

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“That’s not what I asked,” said Kelash. “What percent voted?”

“I don’t know,” said Newman.

(Answer: In 2008, 77.8 percent of Minnesota’s eligible voters made it to the polls, while 59.1 percent of Indiana’s eligibles voted. Typically, Indiana is among the bottom third of states in voter participation.)

As the hours passed in the Senate amendment debate, there were little bursts of outrage.

At one point, it appeared that John Harrington, a DFLer from St. Paul, was about to leave the floor, but he stopped in his tracks when Republican Michael Jungbauer of East Bethel got up to defend  photo ID.

The two ended up in this exchange.

“This is a minimalistic thing we’re asking,” Jungbauer said of the amendment. “I went to the Cub store to buy food and I needed an ID with my debit card.”

Harrington bristled.

“Buying baloney at the Cub isn’t the same as the right people fought and died for. Buying baloney is a contractual arrangement between you and your bank. … Voting is a fundamental right.”

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DFLers were doing almost all of the talking because Republicans had something far more powerful than words. They had the votes. They were going to prevail and knew it.

Minority talks; majority wins

It’s been ever thus for the minority party. The minority talks and agitates and pokes and prods. The majority wins.

Large numbers of Republicans left the chamber while the DFLers spoke.

Some Republican senators even managed to run into Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley in a hallway outside the Senate chambe as the debate went on.

Again that question:  If nobody’s listening, why bother?

Sen. Katie Sieben

Sen. Katie Sieben

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, who spoke more frequently than usual during the amendment debate, said, “You always hope you can persuade someone.”

But she acknowledged that particularly on an issue on which a caucus has a strong position, there’s little likelihood of anyone changing positions. (Only one Republican, Jeremy Miller of Winona didn’t toe his party’s line on the amendment. Miller’s vote, however, was not a product of DFL debating points. In an earlier vote, Miller also had opposed the amendment.)

Still, there was a point to all the pointed DFL questions and little speeches on Wednesday and in the similar debates this session.

In this case, DFLers were beginning the process of figuring out their message to the public.

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DFLers understand that the Republican message on voter ID is simple: What’s wrong with voters having to prove who they are? As Jungbauer noted, we need to have an ID for the most mundane transactions in life, why not for the most sacred business of a democracy?

So during the debates, DFLers kept pounding away on the fact that the amendment will have a much greater impact than the 30 words voters will be seeing on the ballot.

There will, DFLers say, be profound changes in voting for everyone from Granny in the nursing home, whose driver’s license has expired, to the G.I. serving overseas.

In both the House and Senate, DFLers made the same point.

In the House, Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley called the amendment “a Trojan horse.”

“It seems to me what you’re doing is trying to sell your amendment to the voters, mislead them into believing this is just about saying who you are on Election Day,” Winkler said as the DFLers pounded on the GOP through the night and into the early morning hours Wednesday. “In fact, your bill is a Trojan horse, to do a lot of other things to disrupt and cause chaos in Minnesota’s election system.”

The same theme was repeated in the Senate.

“We’re not debating voter verification,’’ said Sen. Terri Bonoff. “This language goes so much farther, particularly regarding provisional voting. The voters will not see the profound changes that are contained in this.”

These hours of one-sided debate, then, were really the beginning of the DFL’s campaign to block an amendment they think will be especially hurtful to DFLers.

They were preaching to themselves and to the small number of hard-core political observers and citizens who follow live telecasts of legislative sessions. The debates were staged not so much to persuade anyone inside the chambers, but to begin conversations outside the Capitol.

After the vote had made the outcome official, Sieben talked of all that time that had been spent on the Senate floor.

She admitted it can be frustrating to be watching political opponents stroll out of the chamber while you’re trying to make a compelling point. But she said the time in these debates is not wasted.

“It’s incumbent on us to explain to the public the practical implication of what’s actually in the amendment,” she said.

Republicans got the victory, but DFLers got a few good sound bites in a debate that’s just begun.