Reading the Bills

By Beacon Staff

“What Makes You Think We Read the Bills?” was the tongue-in-cheek title of a book written about 30 years ago by long-time California lawmaker H.L. Richardson. The book is a chronicle of slip-ups, snafus and shenanigans from our national and state capitols. The stories are amusing but also outrageous. They amply illustrate the shortcomings and imperfections of the legislative process even in the world’s most mature representative democracy.

What caused Richardson’s book to cross my mind was the recent snafu in the U.S. Congress over the omission of 34 pages in this year’s farm bill which was vetoed by Pres. Bush. Though a vital part of the legislation, the entire title on foreign trade was somehow left out of the bill’s final version as it was transmitted to the President. How could such a thing happen? It doesn’t happen very often, but obviously it can. Most legislators understand the key concepts of legislation, I think, but they don’t pay much attention to the specific language and the technical details. Detailed proofreading of legislation is considered “staff work.” In this case the devil was in the details.

The bill that caused the recent embarrassment was 628 pages long. Scores of staff people had been deeply involved in its drafting. Too many cooks could have spoiled the broth. Maybe an over reliance on technology caused the error. Whatever the explanation, the result is a spectacular embarrassment.

Over a half century ago when there was virtually no legislative staff or high technology on which to blame slip-ups; a doozy of an example of one occurred in the Montana Legislature. Though it is hard to imagine now, in the 1950s it was not legal in Montana for stores to sell yellow margarine. Margarine could only be marketed in its natural lard-like appearance. Yellow coloring was sold with it, and the purchaser mixed the two before serving.

Grocers and homemakers wanted to be able to sell and buy colored margarine as was permitted in many other states. Probably not surprisingly, the strongest advocates of the yellow margarine legislation were Rosebud County Rep. Adeline Arnold, one of only two women representatives serving at that time, and Rep. Tom Haines, a wholesale grocer from Missoula. The state’s dairy industry, the real butter producers, fought hard to keep the law the way it was. The battle over butter generated a fair amount of news coverage, pitting the grocers, local chambers of commerce and consumers against the dairymen and their fellow agriculturalist allies the stock producers and grain growers.

In 1953, the yellow margarine coalition prevailed and their hard-fought bill reached the Governor’s desk. That is when it was discovered that the legislation to legalize the sale of yellow margarine in Montana actually proposed to do so in Wyoming. The Montana margarine bill was modeled after one that had successfully passed the Wyoming Legislature. The Montana drafter had correctly made the bill’s provisions fit into the Montana legal code, but had overlooked the little detail of deleting the reference to Wyoming and replacing it with Montana. Incredibly, the error in the one page bill went undiscovered through two formal committee hearings and full debates on the floors of both the House and Senate.

Gov. J. Hugo Aronson had promised he would sign the bill. Montana housewives were counting on him. It was widely rumored that Mrs. Aronson was an ardent advocate of yellow margarine. Vetoing the bill would expose the Legislature to great embarrassment and keep yellow margarine out of Montana for at least another two years. But knowingly signing the flawed bill would be dishonest, and probably soon result in the same outcome. Either scenario could make the Governor an entry in the diaries of mad Montana housewives.

What was he to do? What he did was break the law and the constitution. He secretly had the bill corrected and quickly signed it into law. Aronson’s common sense, no harm, no foul solution worked because nobody knew about it at the time. Today’s big bungle is on display for all to see. The real solution the people are always entitled to is for somebody to read the bills.

Bob Brown is a senior fellow at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at The University of Montana and a former Montana secretary of state.

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