OKLAHOMA CITY — Flaring tempers, profanity on the floor and flippant remarks during debates highlighted recent breaches in decorum at the Oklahoma Legislature, prompting the Senate to go into a rarely used closed-door session to discuss chamber rules and one member to deliver a public apology in the House.
Uncivil behavior isn’t unprecedented — no one got shot as in a session 66 years ago — but when it happens it turns heads.
“I hit the gavel as hard as I’ve ever hit it,” said Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, the target of Democrats who feared they were being ignored during a late-night debate.
“Frustration is one thing, but you’ve got to keep the decorum,” said Armes, who is in his 11th year as a legislator and regularly presides over debates.
Last week was a legislative deadline for bills to be heard on the floor, and tempers ran high Tuesday night when the House worked until midnight to consider bills. When Republicans, in the majority, decided to cut off questions and debate in order to get several bills passed before the midnight deadline, Democrats objected. One cussed and drew a reprimand. Even after the session ended, a Democrat shouted at Armes.
“Last night things got kind of heated ... I apologize and I mean it,” Rep. James Lockhart, D-Heavener, said from the well of the House the next day, earning a standing ovation from the entire chamber.
Democratic leader Rep. Scott Inman said Democrats were frustrated because Armes wasn’t recognizing them for motions or objections.
“Two or three of those members got frustrated and voiced their frustration in a way they shouldn’t have, to be honest with you,” said Inman, D-Del City. “Momma always said nothing good happens after midnight. Well, I can tell you in the Legislature nothing good happens just before midnight, and this was case in point.”
While the House, with 101 members, has a reputation for occasional rowdiness, the Senate also has not been immune from decorum issues. After grumblings that some members were becoming too flippant with their remarks and too personal during debates, the entire Senate went into a rare closed-door executive session on Monday to discuss Senate decorum. Visitors in the gallery and members of the media were ordered out of the chamber for the first time in more than two decades.
“We’re all here for a short time, and decorum is special in the Senate,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “So sometimes people need to be reminded. We’re only here for a short time, but the legend of the Senate continues.”
Sen. David Holt acknowledged he was at least partly to blame for jokingly referring to Senate Democratic Leader Sean Burrage during debate as “Matlock,” the folksy southern lawyer played by Andy Griffith in the 1980s television drama of the same name.
“It was one of the many things that contributed to that session, but there were many other things that were discussed,” said Holt, R-Oklahoma City. “It was all kinds of stuff related to decorum.”
While rare, major breaches of decorum are nothing new in the Oklahoma Legislature. The most notable occurred in 1947 when then-Sen. Tom Anglin was shot in the hip on the Senate floor in a confrontation with a House member, Rep. Jimie Scott, according to newspaper accounts and “A Century to Remember,” an historical account of the Oklahoma House written in 1999 by its former research director, George Humphreys.
Jim Glover, who served in the House for 26 years until 2002, frequently presided over the House in the 1980s and 1990s recalled one incident when two members, both Republicans, got into a tussle on the House floor.
“A couple of blows, but that’s all,” Glover recalled. “I stepped out of the chair and broke it up, a couple of us did.”
Glover said a key difference between the Legislature then and now is that term limits have resulted in dozens of new members after each election cycle, many of whom have no idea about all the rules of decorum.
“I never really served when you had turnover the way it is now,” Glover said. “Freshman usually just listened and tried to learn.”
Armes, who is in his sixth and final term in the Legislature, agreed term limits are partly to blame for new members not getting up to speed on rules regarding decorum.
“We’ve got a huge etiquette problem, and a lot of that is just new members,” Armes said. “With term limits now, it seems like it’s accelerated. It’s almost like you’ve got the kids teaching the kids in some respects now.
“You’ve got a shorter period of time to get them caught up ... to learn that decorum.”