Right around the time he was sworn in as speaker of the Missouri House, Rod Jetton invited a number of former occupants of the office to dinner.
While speaking to former Democratic Speakers Kenneth Rothman and Bob Griffin, Jetton, a Republican, said he expected success since he was serving with GOP Gov. Matt Blunt.
“And they looked at me and said, ‘Um, no it won’t be,’” Jetton said. “You're gonna have a lot of problems with the governor in your own party. It's always bad.”
Jetton eventually found that his two predecessors were right, as he and Blunt disagreed over a multitude of issues — showcasing the inherent tensions between a governor and House speaker. It’s similar to what’s happening now with Gov. Mike Parson engaged in a public spat with House Speaker Rob Vescovo.
In a blowup that many observers believe was months in the making, Parson unloaded last week on Vescovo and House GOP leadership for not letting him give his State of the State speech in the House chamber. While lawmakers cited COVID-19, Parson contended the move was meant to humiliate him — and questioned if House leaders were really concerned about the pandemic when many members refuse to wear masks.
Neither Vescovo nor other members of House GOP leadership have returned requests for comment. Parson briefly addressed his three-page letter, which included bolded and underlined words, at his Thursday press briefing — stating he was planning to “move forward” working with the House and Senate.
“This is not about me and the speaker. It’s about the state of Missouri moving forward,” Parson said. “I know there's a lot of hype in the media about all the things between me and the speaker. Some of it I learned stuff just reading what you guys are writing — I didn’t even know it existed. The point is: He’s got a job to do. I’ve got a job to do. And I’m going to move forward for the people of Missouri and I’m satisfied the speaker will too.”
If Vescovo and Parson don’t mend fences, some elements of the governor’s agenda could be in jeopardy — especially because the speaker can easily gum up the works when it comes to legislation.
“If I could advise both of them I would say, ‘Look, gentlemen, you generally have the same endgame,’” said former House Speaker Tim Jones, who served in the position from 2013 to 2015. “You definitely want to get things done for all Missourians, but through a conservative philosophical lens. And so I think you need to right now bury the hatchet and figure out how to work together to move things forward.”
There’s nothing particularly new about disagreements between House speakers and governors. Especially when they’re members of different political parties, as was the case in the 2000s with Democratic Gov. Bob Holden and GOP House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, the policy disputes can get heated and high profile.
“I think there was real tension during the time period when I was speaker because we also had a change in control of the Legislature for the first time in 48 years,” Hanaway said. “So as a new majority, we had nearly five decades of pent-up ideas. We had a very specific agenda that we were trying to advance. And many of those ideas hadn't been heard.”
As Jetton mentioned, public disagreements have happened during unified GOP control of the executive and legislative branches. Jetton’s disagreements with Blunt over higher education facility construction and overhauling Medicaid were dominant storylines of the legislative session. More recently, Parson and then-House Speaker Elijah Haahr diverged over a special session regarding crime.
What makes Parson’s letter attacking Vescovo and House leadership so notable is the dispute has nothing to do with policy — but rather the venue of State of the State address. Hanaway noted that her legislative battles with Holden over the state budget and other matters had little to do with personalities.
“Gov. Holden, I always presumed, was acting in what his view was the best way to serve Missourians,” Hanaway said. “I thought he was an honest man who was committed to public service, and I didn't have any questions about that. We disagreed on how to get that job done.”
A number of observers were surprised Parson made his displeasure so public, since Vescovo can easily kill a lot of Parson’s agenda, either by sending priority bills to unfavorable committees or waiting until the last day of session to assign legislation.
“The house is the body that can move the legislation, the quickest, and it can also kill it the fastest as well,” Jones said. “The speaker, especially if the floor leader is on the same page with them, they provide a very formidable matchup against whatever the heck the Senate or the governor might want to do.”
In some respects, Vescovo already played a role in derailing some key Parson initiatives even before he became speaker. Most notably, Parson and Vescovo had markedly different perspectives in 2019 on legislation overhauling the low-income housing tax credit — one of the more contentious issues that divides Missouri Republicans. Others point to Vescovo’s comments on gun control and the House’s examination into the state’s medical marijuana program as sources of tension.
Both Jones and Jetton pointed out that governors and House speakers have different constituencies. Governors are often trying to get sweeping policy proposals passed to place their stamp on state government. And while House speakers have their own policy aspirations, they also have to manage a caucus that often has divergent goals.
“The speaker of the House, his first duty and responsibility is to protect and safeguard the position of the House,” Jones said. “And a lot of times that takes a lot of effort, especially if the governor's office and the Senate team up together to potentially roll the House. Which happens all the time, sometimes regardless of party and more on nuanced public policy positions.”
Jones didn’t serve in the House with Vescovo, but knows him fairly well. He said that he possesses some similarities to the Jefferson County Republican, adding “we tend to be big figures with our personality, we tend to be aggressive, we tend to be very motivated, we tend to want to get things done.”
Jones, who served with Parson in the House from 2007 to 2011, said the governor and Vescovo “are two very motivated, professional people here who know a lot about how government works.”
“I think the best thing the two of them could do right now is sit down together with nobody else in the room, figure out what they need to say about how they got to that point, and then decide to bury those hard feelings and move forward together,” Jones said. “I'm sure the Democrats are enjoying all this friction and consternation. Because maybe that means the Republican agenda could be at risk here, and that's the last thing that I think either one of them would want to do.”
Jetton said Vescovo does hold more leverage now to make it harder for Parson to achieve his goals. He pointed to another anecdote about how Griffin, the legendary Democratic House speaker, was particularly upset over an unspecified incident that brought about tension with then-Gov. John Ashcroft.
Eventually, Jetton said, Ashcroft had a meeting in Griffin’s office where the governor carried a meal on a silver platter while wearing white gloves as a way to make amends to the speaker. Jetton said even though Ashcroft had differences with Griffin, the humorous gesture was acknowledgement of how important the speaker is to the governor’s effectiveness.
But the big difference between Griffin and Vescovo is that Griffin served in an era when term limits didn’t exist. Vescovo won’t be able to run again for his House seat after 2022, which Jetton said will give him less leverage in 2022 to influence the GOP caucus. He pointed to his own experience in 2008 when he became less and less relevant to the legislative process as his time in the General Assembly drew to a close.
While emphasizing he isn’t privy to any discussions between Vescovo and Parson, Jetton said the governor may be trying to drive a wedge between the speaker and rank-and-file GOP activists who are more prone to support a chief executive over a legislative leader.
“So that probably was his strategy,” said Jetton, referring to Parson. “And that probably means the bridge is burned, and they're already in a war, and now it's about who can control that caucus.”
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum