In Politics, Good News is No News

By Beacon Staff

The Legislature met in special session earlier this month, and no one hardly noticed. The reason is that the legislators completed a simple task in a single day. They did so amicably, intelligently and without partisan rancor, and so they made no news. I suppose it follows, then, that it’s good news that they made no news.

The regular session of the Legislature earlier this year, and the special session that followed it, were partisan slugfests. The controversy that characterized them made news and reinforced the public impression that our lawmakers are a bunch of partisan bunglers.

They aren’t, but the fact that they recently paid the fire bills without going to the mat provides no reason to believe that our lawmakers have learned to play nice. It does, however, show that they can.

The recent special session began with legislative leaders complaining that they had not been informed about it until after it had been called. They objected to proposed legislation to expand the spending authority of the governor.

Traditionally, governors have consulted with the legislative leadership prior to calling special legislative sessions. The governor might have obtained the flexibility in interim spending that he wanted from this special session if he had explained his proposal to those whose consent it required before dropping it on them.

The governor did not get all he wanted from the special session, but he did get all he needed, and to his credit, he cheerfully accepted it. The positive outcome, largely unnoticed by the public, will hopefully not be lost on the lawmakers. They can work with each other, and now they know they can.

Capitalizing on this small beginning in positive politics, perhaps the time is right to consider reforms that would require bipartisan support, and could help to improve state government in the future.

The Republicans have been proponents of term limits which are now mandated by our state constitution. The Democrats, through a sympathetic state Supreme Court, have benefited from the gerrymandering of state legislative districts. Proposed constitutional amendments require two-thirds majorities of the Legislature. A significant number of Republicans would have to vote to get rid of term limits, and so too, the Democrats to restore balance to the redistricting process.

The people should be able to vote for experienced legislators if they chose to, and they should be able to cast their votes in districts that are not contrived by an apportionment commission, the majority of which is politically determined by the only nominally nonpartisan Supreme Court.

Other reforms could be accomplished simply by modifications of the Legislature’s rules of procedure. The final tallies on the Senate and House voting boards should not be displayed until the voting is completed. Legislators should have to vote their convictions before knowing whether they will be on the prevailing side.

Standing committees should reflect, as nearly as possible, the partisan make-up of the legislative body. A simple majority of the whole body should be sufficient to override the actions of any of its committees. Provisions making the fate of one piece of legislation contingent on the fate of another should not be allowed as a means of getting around the requirement that bills cannot contain unrelated subjects. Every legislator should serve on at least one important (Class A) committee. The Legislature should experiment with alphabetical seating and get rid of the center aisle as a partisan barrier to independent thinking. The governor and legislative leaders should meet regularly, including in the interim period between legislatives sessions, and frequently during sessions.

Our system of government was not and should not be designed to make the lawmaking process easy, but it was never intended, either, to be abused and burdened by senseless encumbrances and restrictions created more to protect partisan advantage than to promote the public interest.

Politics will always be political. Freely spoken differences of opinion are what our freedom is all about. Our system is functioning, then the news it generates can be about what it accomplishes, not just about what it doesn’t.

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