Subject to debate: Do floor speeches ever cause legislators to change their mind?

Copyright Minnesota House of Representatives/Photo by Paul Battaglia
Rep. Pat Garofalo, above, and Rep. Ryan Winkler come closest to filling Rep. Tom Rukavina's oratorial shoes in terms of knowledge, combativeness and hilarity.

For years, I’ve thought the Minnesota Legislature could get its business done much more efficiently by adopting something like the National Basketball Association’s 24-second shot clock. 

A legislator would get two dozen seconds to make a point on the floor of the House or Senate. At the end of that period, whether the lawmaker is finished or not, a buzzer would go off and the speaker would be forced go silent. 

“I’d like to add a friendly amendment,’’ said Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover. “A trap door.’’

All of which is to say that as the 2015 edition of the Minnesota Legislature careens toward its conclusion, there will be lots and lots (and lots) of talking, especially on the floors of the House and the Senate.  

The question, as always, is whether anybody will be listening. And, more important, does it even matter: Do the debates at the Capitol ever cause anyone to shift positions? 

The short answer: Sometimes. But rarely. 

How to win friends and (maybe) influence people

It helps, say those in the know, to understand that the most basic keys to being a successful legislative debater are pretty much the same as the keys to being a successful employee, party guest or human being: 1. Don’t talk too much and 2. Know what you’re talking about on the occasions when you do speak. 

There are a handful of other characteristics among the most effective debaters, as well. The first is to know your place in the pecking order. The more power you have as a legislator, the less you need to speak. Rhetoric may play well at the local party rally back home, but it draws yawns on the Senate and House floors. Concision is a virtue. 

Or as Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, reminds us: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

With that in mind, let’s move quickly through the highlights of my dive into legislative debating: 

  • Everybody misses state Rep. Tom Rukavina,  DFL-Virginia. He was knowledgeable, entertaining, combative and hilarious. Those who come closest to filling Rukavina’s shoes? Reps. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. 

  •  There are some legislators who tend to leave their fellow members cringing. For example, when Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, gets up to talk about government’s irresponsible spending, which is often, there’s a lot of discomfort in the chamber, given that Nienow once reneged on a $613,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration and a few months ago was relieved of $840,000 debt via Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

  • Powerful debate speeches in the House or Senate can and do have impact off the floor.  The most recent example came in 2011, when John Kriesel, a rookie Republican state representative from Cottage Grove who lost both his legs in combat in Iraq, gave one of the most powerful speeches in recent memory. At the time, the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate were moving an amendment to put a referendum on the ballot to prohibit same-sex marriage. Kreisel’s speech against the measure didn’t stop the GOP from moving the amendment to the ballot, but it received huge YouTube play and likely helped sway the minds of Minnesotans, who voted down the amendment in 2012. 

  • Sometimes, lawmakers do change their minds. Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, for instance, is typically a hard-line conservative vote on all issues. But this year, he did a 180-degree turn on the issue of restoring voting rights to felons after they’re released from prison. Once opposed to the idea, Hall changed his mind after having conversations with people outside the Capitol. Hall spoke briefly on the floor of the Senate about his support, and though the measure did pass in the Senate, it has gone without being heard in the House.

Even predictable debates have a purpose
But changing positions, at least in the short term, is rare — and almost nonexistent on such major bills as the tax bill. So why, if the outcome is clear, are there the long, predictable debates at all?

“Minds are rarely changed,” said Thompson, “but the public deserves to know that there are differences in approach.”    

Before Monday’s Senate debate began on the tax bill, for example, Sen. Rod Skoe, chairman of the tax committee, knew the DFL would prevail on his committee’s proposal. He also knew that before the vote was taken, there would be considerable time spent on the debate. Skoe was nonplussed about what was about to unfold. 

“People have to show their constituents they’re standing up for what they’d campaigned on,’’ said Skoe. So, the debate was held, the vote was taken, the DFL prevailed. Now a House-Senate conference committee will somehow have to find areas of compromise between two drastically different tax bills.

Sean Nienow
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
When state Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, gets up to talk about government’s irresponsible spending, which is often, there’s a lot of discomfort in the chamber.

Former Rep. Jim Abeler, a Republican from Anoka, also says that debate plays an important role in reaching resolution. 

“Both sides have one more chance to firmly state their positions,’’ Abeler said. “In this session, you have the governor standing ‘firm’ on his position on childhood education. He repeats that position. And you have the House firm on its resolve on taxes. So everyone has had their chance to state their firm positions. The big trick is to bring people with these firm positions to a soft landing.’’ 

Much of that work is done in closed door caucus settings, where leaders must start bringing people to the middle — to forget what was said on the campaign trail or what was said in the midst of a debate on the floor. “In the end, in the caucus session, you have people saying, ‘Well, I can’t accept this, but I can accept this,’’’ said Abeler. 

Expertise matters

It’s on more technical policy issues where floor debate matters most, according to several legislators.  Minds can be changed. But it’s not usually because of stirring rhetoric. It’s because of expertise. 

That’s largely because of the committee system. For instance, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, and Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-St. James, have advanced legislation out of the Senate and House environment committees that mirrors Gov. Mark Dayton’s desire to require — and enforce — 50-foot buffer strips around the state’s lakes, rivers and streams.  This is an issue that requires understanding of complex stuff about everything from runoff to community water supplies. In committee, legislators have a chance to hear from experts. It’s up to committee members to carry that expertise to the floor. 

“There’s some ranting about ‘big government,’ ’’ said Marty, “but this is the sort of issue where people want information. It’s the sort of issue where people are going to change their minds over time because it’s just not going to go away.’’ 

If minds aren’t changed on the entire 50-foot buffer strip this session, Marty is convinced that more knowledge and the desire for clean water will change minds in the near future. In other words, today’s debate is often just the first step in changing hearts and minds.

State Rep. John Kriesel
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
In 2011, state Rep. John Kriesel gave one of the most powerful speeches in recent memory against the same-sex marriage amendment.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, who is in his 43rd year of listening to debates, says that a few decades ago, it seemed as if there was less of the political grandstanding than there is now. Though he admits he’s biased, he says he believes it’s the far right that has changed the tone of some debates. “They (new-era conservatives) don’t see a role for government in solving problems.” 

Yet, he says, the Legislature is sometimes able to get information and move quickly. This year’s example: adding millions to the agriculture budget in response to the avian flu crisis. This issue didn’t involve debate so much as it involved questions and answers, which led to overwhelming bi-partisan support of supplementing the budget.  

There are differences between good debaters and interesting speakers. Skoe, a Clearbrook farmer by trade, recalls advice he received when he arrived in St. Paul as a rookie state rep in 1999. He was greeted by longtime Rep. Henry Kalis, a farmer and a conservative DFLer from Walters. 

“When you get up to speak,’’ Kalis told Skoe, “You want people to listen. So make sure you have something to say.’’ 

Petersen, who as a libertarian doesn’t always follow GOP orthodoxy, makes a similar point. “If I hear six other people say pretty much what I was going to say, I try not to be the seventh person to say it.’’ 

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ellen Hoerle on 05/06/2015 - 12:20 pm.

    They should be embarrassed

    I watched the full Senate debate on April 27 about the gas tax. Of course, Senate Republicans were opposed to increasing it but the distortions of basic math they used to justify their opposition were ludicrous.

    I wrote about it here. Warning: it involves basic math.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/06/2015 - 02:57 pm.

      Absolutely hysterical. Thanks Ellen

      For the laugh. My father always used to say that for many legislators – that job was the best paying job they ever had. Don’t think that has changed.

  2. Submitted by Carol Flynn on 05/06/2015 - 03:22 pm.

    Floor Debate

    One would think lawyers would be the best speakers but alas I didn’t find that to be so back in the ’90s.
    My favorite debater on the Senate floor was Allan Spear. He rarely spoke but when he did everyone listened. Perhaps being a college instructor was the key while Dean Johnson’s training as a minister prepared them for interesting and challenging floor speeches . Johnson’s speech in support of adding sexual preference to the state Human Rights law was a show stopper that may have changed minds. It certainly lost him the leadership of the Republican caucus and moved him to the DFL caucus.

  3. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/06/2015 - 04:19 pm.

    Sean Nienow

    It is always stunning how some folks have a complete and total lack of any kind of feedback loop. How he can stand up and rail against the poor financial decision making of the state (in which he is a significant decision maker) and not have that little voice in the back of his head saying:
    ” Hey Sean: Ever hear of the pot calling the kettle black? Sit down and shut up”. If he gains re-election we may as well give up all hope of ever having accountable legislators.

  4. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 05/06/2015 - 09:52 pm.

    It’s the money

    Legislator are just doing what their deep pocketed puppeteers are wanting them to do. Have you noticed how difficult it is to get the the campaign funding laws changed? The puppeteers don’t want them changed, so they won’t be changed in any meaningful way. Corruption is thoroughly imbedded throughout all levels of politics.

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/06/2015 - 07:05 pm.


    It would help if there were actually people present during the speeches. While most of our legislators want everyone to hear what they say, how many stick around in the chamber to listen what the other folks have to say?

  6. Submitted by John Appelen on 05/06/2015 - 08:20 pm.


    After playing the middle ground in tens of thousands of posts and comments, rarely have I ever had others move significantly from the position they started from. And it seems the further Right or Left the person is, the less likely they are to even discuss the topic professionally. My guess is that they assume bad intent and/or their paradigms / perspective are so different that they truly can not see the speaker’s view as a possible reality.

    I hope the politicians are better listeners and thinkers than talkers, however unfortunately I kind of doubt that is the case.

  7. Submitted by Tom Karas on 05/06/2015 - 08:25 pm.

    MN Floor debates are totally cool

    Coming from another state that will remain nameless, I can say that this part time legislation schedule coupled with great TV coverage makes for some of the best political theater I have ever seen. Rep. Hortman did a masterful job during the House energy debate in offering an amendment that would allow for the acceptance of the science around climate change. I am sure she knew the eventual result. But the theater was in watching all the R’s give their “I am not a scientist” statements until Rep Newberger of all people realized what they had the party had stepped in to. And the icing on the cake was Rep Garofolo voting to the positive on the amendment as he may of been the only R that understood that ALEC had changed their position that battling the science is now useless and ignorant. But it showed how he could toss his pals under the bus and allow them to become fodder in the next election cycle, while keeping a shred of respectability for himself.
    Keep the theater and no shot clock, you got a great thing going here….. be well.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/07/2015 - 08:54 am.

    Let’s be honest

    The republican party in this state serves as little more than a speed bump impeding the ever-expanding appetite of the party of big government. Like volunteers at the Alamo, all we can hope for is that they put up a good fight.

  9. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 05/07/2015 - 03:23 pm.

    Mindless debates

    They can be entertaining, but so pointless. If a party is in the minority, but for the past two years they were the majority, why debate a bill (campaign finance) when you didn’t bother pass it in either of the last two sessions when there was no opposition? Either you believe it in, or just when politically expedient.

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