Rep. Eric Lucero stood up to speak on the floor of the Minnesota House this week, his words vying for attention with his sea-foam green suit. Talking in graphic detail about sex, he unleashed a colorful lament against a DFL proposal to require comprehensive sex education in schools.
The Dayton Republican nearly topped that performance the next day: “We don’t want the world to come to an end, do we?” he intoned during a two-day debate on an expansive jobs and energy bill. “I don’t want the world to come to an end. Well, actually I do, eventually, but not for these causes.”
It’s that time of year at the Legislature, where lawmakers engage in their springtime ritual of marathon debate to pass budget bills. The sessions can go on eight, 10 and 12 hours and require parsing through hundreds of proposed amendments — some germane, some not.
“Politicians love to hear themselves talk,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. “If we shut off the cameras in the House chamber, my guess is the debates would go for about 10 minutes,” he said, allowing that his colleagues are sincerely passionate about their ideas and want to show their constituents they are fighting for their interests.
Lawmakers’ nerves get understandably ragged. Take long days and nights away from family and friends, inject a jittery caffeine buzz, and then top it off with the nation’s polarized politics and the sheer exhaustion of being forced to listen to opposing politicians droning on about their contrary ideas. It tests lawmakers’ emotional resolve.
“It can feel a little like the theater of the absurd at some times,” admitted freshman DFL Rep. Michael Howard, who had been through the process before as a legislative staffer. “Going through a hundred amendments, being in the same place on the House floor, you can mentally prepare yourself for it, but it’s another thing to be sitting there for a while.”
Members passed some of those hours scrolling through iPhones, sewing needlepoint and taking turns holding one colleague’s 5-month-old baby. Some stepped out to visit with various advocacy groups gathering to lobby captive lawmakers, including cattlemen grilling steak on a stick on the Capitol steps. But the long days and high tensions can further strain the rift between the two parties, which remain far apart on the state budget and a host of policy issues looming over the session.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, in her fourth month presiding over the chamber after the Democrats swept to the majority in the 2018 election, blamed the long debates for an unnamed member’s health problem.
The suggestion sparked swift rebuke — and a fresh political dig — from Republican Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, a frequent contributor of forceful — and lengthy — challenges to the DFL procedural maneuvers on the House floor.
“It was actually one of our members. It had nothing to do with the length of the session. It was an allergic reaction,” a visibly annoyed Daudt told reporters. “She shouldn’t use people’s health to try to make the case that we should pull the wool over people’s eyes about not knowing what’s in these bills.”
Some of the Punch-and-Judy drama can be traced to larger forces of political polarization, Garofalo said.
“There’s no doubt that there’s less ticket-splitting and more tribal voting,” he said, referring to Americans’ and Minnesotans’ sorting themselves into red and blue nations. “Which incentivizes the rock throwing and stage fighting of the House floor,” he said.
Even the august chamber of the Minnesota House of Representatives — dominated by a massive portrait of a solemn Abraham Lincoln — can be overcome by the aroma of more than 150 people in the same room for hours on end. The fridge in the members’ only caucus room overflowed this week with leftovers and takeout. Stacks of bill amendments, half-empty bottles of Vitamin Water — and in one case, an extra-large canister of Planter’s peanuts, sans top — accumulated on lawmakers’ desks throughout the week.
Legislators pooled cash to order dinner from Pizza Luce and passed spare phone chargers between desks. When coffee wasn’t doing the trick, someone began distributing caffeinated chocolates.
“Especially the first day, a lot of us first-timers were a little unprepared for the marathon we were in for,” freshman Rep. Dan Wolgamott said. He added: “We’re all banding together to get through it and stay energized and stay upbeat.”
Still, the St. Cloud Democrat, who won election in 2018 after an earlier failed bid, said he was grateful for the opportunity to work on the budget and other important issues. Following the example of colleagues, he is considering swapping his dress shoes for sneakers for future long sessions.
The Senate is more staid and formal. A tighter dress code means the floor is free of the golf shirts sported by some members of the lower chamber. No food or drink is allowed, not even water. Debates are notably shorter — and subdued. But while they avoided some of the partisan rancor this week, senators weren’t immune to long hours slogging through lengthy budget bills in committee and on the floor. By Thursday, the schedule had started to wear on even the most even-keeled and message-disciplined members of the upper chamber.
“I hear there’s genuine excitement in the room, goose bumps,” Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, deadpanned as he kicked off yet another news conference on a budget bill Thursday.
The long days and heightened tensions are almost over — for now. Both chambers signaled Thursday that they had made enough progress to avoid working through the weekend. But once Wednesday’s deadline for passing budget bills off the floor hits, the hard work of negotiating a deal between the divided factions begins. Leaders remain optimistic about their prospects for reaching an agreement, even given the tenor of the week.
“Don’t look for ‘Kumbaya’ every minute of every day here at the Legislature,” Hortman said. “There’s a reason the Legislature is referred to as sausage making. It will be messy; there will be contention. There is supposed to be conflict, there is supposed to be strong disagreement. Just because you will see that on the floor debate both in the House and the Senate does not bode ill for our future negotiations.”