November’s election delivered a sea change to American politics, and it’s unclear what the shifting tides will wash up on the shores of Washington D.C. But if you’re a gambler, place a hefty bet on entrenchment and squabbling, which might sound familiar.
Indeed, we will have the pleasure of watching U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer engage in an old-guy standoff. For lay political observers, it will be tedious and exasperating, even if cable news dedicates seven hours a day to analyzing the potential implications of the senators’ gloomy facial expressions.
Admittedly, for Democrats, unwavering opposition may at times be their best, indeed only, option in the face of GOP control in the House, Senate, and White House. They will take cues from Republicans, who in recent years have elevated obstruction to an art form.
But back here on dry land, in Montana, where independent-minded voters once again split the ticket by overwhelmingly electing Republicans yet choosing to retain a Democratic governor, residents will likely be exposed to an exotic concept called “bipartisanship.” Look it up in the dictionary. It’s a real thing.
For further evidence, consult the last two legislative sessions, where Democrats and Republicans have banded together to pass difficult bills, including Medicaid expansion and a water-rights compact. Whereas ideological hardliners might perceive the results as big-picture losses through capitulation, moderates tout them as incremental gains through compromise.
Part of this cooperation was a function of government makeup. Republicans held majorities in both the House and Senate, but Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock wielded the veto pen. To get anything done, each side needed the other, with calculated concessions granted in order to negotiate bills critical to their respective values.
Facilitating the collaboration was a divide in the GOP, in which self-described “responsible Republicans” broke with their farther-right counterparts to reach across the aisle. Undoubtedly, lots of lawmakers left Helena angry, particularly conservatives, but the system produced impactful legislation, which it’s supposed to do.
Again, if you’re a centrist, such checks and balances between branches are essential to crafting middle-of-the-road legislation that favors the masses. But with one party holding complete power at the federal level, no checks are in place, beyond institutional mechanisms such as filibusters, which makes it hard to believe there will be Montana-esque balances.
Yet, it would be cynical to suggest that Montana’s bipartisanship exists strictly because the system’s structure forces it. There’s also a small-town camaraderie baked into the Legislature’s atmosphere. When I wrote a profile in 2013 about Somers Republican Mark Blasdel, then speaker of the House, Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, a Butte Democrat, called Blasdel a “good man” and “friend,” adding that relationships are vital to accomplishing anything in the Legislature.
For the upcoming session, Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, and Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, are proposing a property tax appraisal measure, not to make a media-friendly show out of bipartisanship, but because they both live in communities where the issue is critical.
Our legislators and executives will clash, to be sure, and the animosity will often be as genuine as it is political. It may cause dysfunction. In 2007, bickering led to a special session just to complete a budget.
But unlike Washington D.C., cooler heads will eventually have to prevail, since our citizen legislators, after all, have to get back to their day jobs. And they’ll probably bump into their adversaries, because in a small town, you can’t escape your neighbors.