HELENA – A legislative plan to study marital and divorce problems caused lawmakers in the Montana House to themselves break into sharp argument and bitter disagreement Tuesday.
The issue — and resulting dispute — brought forth long-simmering resentments, and even caused rare open argument among Democrats themselves.
The Republican measure had already been rebuffed once in the House. But it came back for another vote Tuesday after some lawmakers changed their mind on earlier opposition.
Bill sponsor Rep. Tom McGillvray said he wants an interim committee of lawmakers to study marriage laws and the problems caused by divorce. He said he wants to find ways to strengthen Montana families, and turn back a long-term trend of more divorces.
“That’s all I had in my heart when I drafted this resolution,” said the Billings Republican.
The measure singles out several specific areas to be studied by an interim committee, such as the impact of single parenting on children and the perceived problems caused by “unwed cohabitation.”
But the lawmakers themselves weren’t able to get along as they argued over the study — even though such interim studies often go on for months and produce very little, or no, tangible results.
Democrats largely objected that the study is slanted toward the conservative ideology dominant in Republican circles. They said it ignores certain issues in favor of ones that Republican lawmakers would see as problematic.
McGillvray earlier championed a bill that would have removed the state’s no-fault divorce law — meaning people could not get divorced without a legal reason for doing so, such as infidelity. Democrats strongly objected to that failed plan, arguing that it in part could trap abused women in bad relationships.
Those arguments from earlier in the session carried over into the debate on the resolution.
Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman, took the argument a step further. He argued Republicans themselves are to blame for failed marriages.
Wiseman, in a prepared speech, said conservative economic, tax, trade and other polices have led to an impoverishment of the lower and middle classes. He said that economic strife, and resulting marital arguments over money, is the primary cause of divorce.
Wiseman’s speech was cut short when the Republican running the chamber for the day ruled he had drifted from the issue at hand. That led to some infighting among Democrats who split on whether to back Wiseman — forcing them to take a recess to discuss the issue.
Some Democrats bucked their leader, House Speaker Bob Bergren, who wanted an abbreviated debate on the bill. Bergren said the measure should just be unceremoniously killed so lawmakers could focus on bigger problems, and even said he agreed with Republicans that Wiseman’s speech was going astray and could be called out of order.
“How much do we want to flog this thing? It’s just a study resolution.” Bergren told his caucus, some of whom obviously disagreed. “What is the point to be made here?”
Some Democrats grumbled that debate was being stifled on an important philosophical issue. Wiseman appealed to the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” to help him.
It became clear that some Democrats felt that carefully choreographed debates on earlier bills had forced them to keep their mouths shut on important issues. Rep. Bill Wilson, D-Great Falls, said it makes him feel like “the fix is in.”
House Majority Leader Margarett Campbell, D-Poplar, chalked up the dispute to the long hours and weeks spent in Helena.
“A lot of it has to do with the time of the session,” she said. “We are all a bit on edge right now.”
In the end, the measure was endorsed on a 52-47 vote. It faces one more House vote Wednesday, and would go to the Senate if successful.