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The House speaker's new 'master mute' button: minor change or a big deal?

The view of the Minnesota House chamber from the Speaker's rostrum
Tom Olmscheid/Minnesota House of Representatives
The view of the Minnesota House chamber from the Speaker's rostrum, taken before the new mute button was added in 2016 to the right hand side of the desk.

On May 22, with less than an hour to go before a deadline to finish work for the 2016 legislative session, the bonding bill landed on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, standing at the rostrum in front of the chamber, quickly readied the nearly $1 billion package of construction projects for a final vote, but Democrats in the minority weren't happy. Several members picked up their microphones and shouted in protest, saying there wasn’t enough time to read the entire bill, much less make any changes to the proposal.

Then an odd thing happened: For those watching the chaos on the House chamber’s livestream video feed, the shouting abruptly stopped. Then it started back up, until suddenly voices were cut off again, some midsentence. Daudt, who is shown in the House video standing at the rostrum, pushes something off to his right on the desk several times.

It turns out Daudt was utilizing a new feature installed in the Minnesota House chambers ahead of the 2016 session: A “master mute” button.

Mutes all members' microphones

The button allows the speaker of the House to mute at once 133 microphones set up for individual Minnesota legislators, which are activated when a microphone is picked up. Another mute button was installed on the desk of the chief clerk of the Minnesota House, a nonpartisan official elected by representatives. The clerk and speaker’s microphones are not muted when the button is pressed.

The video shows the May 22 House floor session during the bonding bill debate, when Speaker Kurt Daudt uses the new mute button as multiple legislators begin protesting into their microphones at once.

The change to the chamber, initiated by the chief clerk’s office and House Republicans last December, was made as the House chamber was undergoing renovations last winter and spring. The new function brings the technology in the Minnesota House in line with other chambers around the country, but it’s considered a controversial move by some in a time of heightened partisanship in St. Paul.

“I can’t imagine why any speaker would approve putting a mute button in there. To me, it creates temptation for shutting down the minority,” said DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, who previously served as speaker in the chamber. “I never felt the need to have something like that.”

House Republican spokeswoman Susan Closmore said the change was “institutional” and will improve sound quality in the chamber during things like the governor’s State of the State address, University of Minnesota regent elections, tours of the Capitol, student mock legislative sessions, and even regular legislative sessions. During those events, people regularly pick up the microphones and create sound issues across the system.

“Many chambers across the country have a default ‘off’ setting for all mics, with mics going live only when a member is recognized to speak,” Closmore said in a statement, adding that the microphones in the House chamber still remain in a default “on” setting with the option of muting microphones.

Added last winter

The mute option was added last winter and given its final tests in the first week of March, right before the 2016 legislative session began, according to emails obtained through a data practices request. The emails between the Department of Administration and legislators and staff discussed changes to the House and Senate chambers.

The Capitol is in the midst of a multiyear, full-scale restoration, and the addition of the button coincided with rewiring and updates to the House audio system, said Wayne Waslaski, who is overseeing the restoration for the Department of Administration. Waslaski said the cost of the new mute buttons was covered under the current Capitol construction budget.

The House is considered the more informal chamber in Minnesota, and legislators sometimes pick up their microphones, even when they’re not recognized. Several times last session, legislators picked up their microphones and played music into the sound system of the entire chamber, sometimes in the middle of a floor session.

A tool against the minority?

Debates in the Minnesota House can also get heated. In 2015, the House floor erupted into shouts on several occasions, including the final moments of session. That year, former Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, yelled on the floor that Daudt was “acting like a dictator” in a particularly heated moment. Daudt was moving to adjourn a floor session over the protests of the minority, who were asking to be recognized for a roll-call vote.

Thissen, who was unaware of the change to the House’s audio system, said there were several moments during the session where DFL member’s microphones seemed to go out while they were speaking. During session, he assumed the sound problems had something to do with ongoing construction in the Capitol. He said he’s worried the new button will be used to mute the minority when debates are heated in the House.

“I think it’s a big change. It may seem like a minor thing, but it gives the speaker the power to shut off debate in that form, when someone is in the middle of a sentence,” Thissen said. “I wouldn't have approved it.”

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Comments (11)

Reminds me when

Mayor Daley in the 50's and 60's would turn off the microphone of an council member who was saying something that the good Mayor did not like. Never seemed real democratic to me

Just like enthusiasm for the

Just like enthusiasm for the filibuster varies by which party is in control, I suspect if Thissen becomes speaker his dim view of the mute button could brighten.

He had the chance

Thiessen was Speaker and never installed a button. what makes you think he would change on that? He had the opportunity but did nothing about it.

Any more new buttons?

Is there a button to keep legislators from standing on their desks? We could have used one when I served!

Cacophony Control

Good idea. As for "standing on their desks," perhaps NASA has a secret super slippery wax for that. That might be less expensive than installing new desks that collapse at the 180# stress point.
On the other hand, it's rather refreshing that we haven't lost all characteristics of 19th century governance.

Very concerning

First, thanks for writing about the "mundane but important" such as this, Briana and MinnPost. It's very valuable.

In 2016, video (web streaming or otherwise) is a critical method by which government is transparent and accessible to the electorate.

If I am watching a video of public meeting or the legislative proceedings, I expect to hear that which is intended to be heard. The audio mix should be a TECHNICAL judgment, not a political judgment. Let the technical staff determine audio feeds, not a big button on the Speaker's desk.

What other censoring will the legislature find convenient for their own purposes?

So,

is it something like redistricting, with no agreed upon measures ?

Wait and see

We can wait and see if/how it will be used.

But rest assured that if the speaker decides to use it to silence dissenting voices, it will be done with a copy of the Constitution in his pocket.

Sounds Like the Actions of a Very Small man

But then again, when your dysfunctions make it impossible for you to actually allow ideas in opposition to those your dysfunctions force you to accept and believe,...

to even enter your awareness,...

and one of your defense mechanisms is responding to such ideas with visceral discomfort,...

and eventually rage,...

because you know,...

somewhere deep within,...

that SOME of them are better, more reasonable, and more effective than your own,...

it's just so much easier and more comfortable to be able to push a button so that you don't even have to hear those ideas,...

that cause you such deep discomfort

that button being the political equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears,...

and loudly saying "la, la, la, I can't hear you."

I can only wish that such folk would realize how limited the perspectives they're forced to accept really are,...

how deeply other destructive and self destructive,...

how much they need healing to restore them to the capability of broader, deeper, understanding and compassion,...

and find that healing,...

before the Republican Party finally and completely loses it's heart, it's mind, it's soul, and it's imagination,...

to an entire cadre of Donald Trump-type demagogues.

Institutional change?

I keep saying it and I'm going to keep saying it: a lot of republicans simply don't believe in democracy nor do they believe we actually live in a democracy. Ever hear someone say: "This isn't a democracy, it's a 'republic' "?

So here we have an major technical change to the institutional infrastructure of the House, and the democrats don't even know about it? This is how you run an institution? You literally go behind the back of those with whom you share the institution and implement a major structural change without even so much as a memo? They have to find out on the last day of the session when their mikes cut out? Winkler was right, that's how dictators run governments.

The republican claim that this was an institutional change reveals their dictatorial mentality. In democracies, people participate in the process, they are "part" of an institution that is shared with other citizens. In a dictatorship on the other hand, the dictator IS the institution, clearly republicans think they ARE the institution wherever they're in power.

It's important to keep this in mind because the same people who time an again resort to dictatorial impulses are the self same people who prattle on about personal liberties and the evils of "big" government. When freedom is all well and good as long as you do things THEIR way, personal liberties always fade into the fog of dictatorial control.

Haven't you seen this go both ways?

Apparently not. Democrats are very good at trying to limit free speech.
And just to clarify, we are a representative democracy. There are limitations with that.