Capitol Perspectives: The Power of Women Legislators

August 09, 2021

By Phill Brooks

This year was the second time I've seen the power women legislators can have when they are united.

The latest was success of a bi-partisan group of Missouri women senators to force a compromise on an effort to impose strict limits on Medicaid coverage for birth control options.

The first time I saw such unity was in 1980. The issue which brought women legislators together was a bill to impose tougher penalties for rape.

It appeared headed to clear passage on the legislature's final day.

But when the final conference-committee compromise, approved by the Senate, came to the House for what was expected to be the final vote, something remarkable happened.

Rep. Jack Buechner, R-St. Louis County, rose on the House floor to warn that the measure actually made it easier for prosecutors to offer lesser charges with lower sentences as brief as just two years followed by parole.

As he began reading from the bill and explained how it would give prosecutors the ability to offer a guilty plea to a less serious crime with reduced penalties as a deal to avoid a lengthy and expensive trial.

"Rape seemed to have attracted politicians the way the last crumb attracts flies at a picnic," Buechner was quoted as saying.

Good point. So often I had seen bills pushed as anti-crime with tougher penalties also include provisions for prosecutors to cut lower-sentence deals with violators to avoid full-blown trials with an uncertain outcomes and, of course, improving prosecution rates.

As Buechner spoke on the House floor, I watched as women House members began to rise expressing understanding about the point he was making.

With the growing number of women House members voicing agreement with Buechner's argument, male legislative leaders had no choice but to send the bill back for a revised House-Senate compromise.

It was clear that male legislators feared voting for a bill opposed by women legislators could make their votes politically toxic with women voters. One male legislator remarked it probably was the first time women legislators had stood together on an issue.

But rejection of what was supposed to be the final vote raised a problem.

There were just hours left in the legislature's final day of the session.

Complicating the issue was that the bill's sponsor -- Senate Judiciary Chair John Schneider, D-St. Louis County -- had suffered severe injuries from a recent auto accident that had put him into intensive care with a ruptured spleen and on a respirator.

Under legislative standards of that era, any change in a bill of the magnitude of the rape bill required Schneider's approval.

In an heroic act, Schneider came to the Capitol, in a wheel chair.

Then he walked into the Senate chamber. But unable to speak, he simply held up cards to indicate his response during a brief appearance.

In fact, his voice was so restricted from having been on a respirator that the recording of an interview I did for KMOX as he was being wheeled from the Senate was unusable.

Yet, despite his medical condition, he helped facilitate the final compromise version of the rape bill.

Schneider passed in 2017 after 32 years in Missouri's legislature, all but two years in the state Senate.

Buechner passed in 2020 after ten years in Missouri's House and four years in the U.S. House.

Democrat Schneider and Republican Buechner, both from St. Louis County, were two of the most eloquent legislative orators I've covered.

But the much stronger memory I have about them was that despite their strong partisan intensity, they shared a willingness and ability to cross ideological and party divisions to secure passage of substantive legislation.

To paraphrase a description used for Congressional standouts, Buechner and Schneider were clear Missouri General Assembly "lions," the likes of which I fear we've not seen since imposition of limits on legislative terms.