The Con Con

By Beacon Staff

Congress recently failed to secure our border with Mexico. Our state lawmakers failed to complete their job in the 90 days allowed them. As our nation celebrates its 231st birthday, American politics are paralyzed by partisanship.

Historically, government has governed better, and a beautiful example of it occurred right here in Montana. We just observed the 35th anniversary of the 1972 Montana Constitution. Its delegates succeeded in completing the enormous task of totally recreating our state constitution in less than two months. Their document, described by Missoula delegate James Garlington as “the finest gift to the young people of Montana that is within our power to give,” has been described as both liberal and libertarian. Unique among all the state constitutions, it is one of 354 documents listed along with the United States Declaration of Independence, the English Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, in award-winning historian Saul K. Padover’s “Sources of Democracy.”

The delegates to the Montana Constitutional Convention were elected by political party, but the philosophically divided Democrat and Republican delegates looked for ways to remove barriers rather than build them. Their most obvious breaking of a barrier was their refusal to be divided by the convention chamber’s center aisle.

There was no Republican or Democrat side of the aisle in the Con Con. The members chose to seat themselves alphabetically. That arrangement gave emphasis to the power of the ideas of individuals, and deemphasized the group-think power of party politics. An examination of the Con Con transcripts shows that debates were frequently deeply philosophical, and sometimes heated. The outcomes of votes were often close. But not one was strictly party line.

The concepts hammered into articles by the Con Con delegates clearly bear the stamp of Montana. The preamble speaks to the quiet splendor of our mountains and prairies. There is recognition of the unique culture and heritage of our Indian people, and the fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment.

The guarantees to equal rights, privacy, on-going local government review and the periodic opportunity to call a new constitutional convention are frequently identified by scholars as particularly enlightened and visionary. Of huge significance, given Montana’s history, the open meeting provision of the constitution gave our news media and our people new access to the process of legislative decision making. The Anaconda Company was finally toppled from its pedestal of power by the 1972 Montana Constitution.

After all their decisions had been hammered out and the new constitution completed, the people of Montana were given the choice of whether to ratify it. The new constitution was bold. Not even all the delegates supported ratification. But most of them, both Democrats and Republicans, stood shoulder to shoulder in commending it to the Montana people. The vote was close, but the people decided for ratification.

Still today the 1972 Montana Constitution remains a source of controversy. But whether you love or loathe its contents, its enactment alone was a truly remarkable achievement. It’s impossible to imagine anything so consequential and controversial being accomplished in the overheated and usually dysfunctional political climate of today.

The Montana Constitution is one of the last best examples of the American political process accomplishing something significant and important.

The Con Con wasn’t nonpartisan, but its delegates chose to make it bipartisan and in doing so they proved that great things are possible when neither party cares which gets the credit.
Tradition defies it, and political party leaders would decry it, but maybe we are at a point in our political evolution where we should at least experiment with seating our politicians alphabetically. If they really have strongly held convictions, they shouldn’t need to have them reinforced by sitting with others who agree with them. If they are open to new and different ideas, they shouldn’t be forced to sit with party-line thinkers. Where legislators stand should reflect what they think, not where they sit.

Bob Brown, former Montana State Senate President and Secretary of State, is a Senior Fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West

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