News & Features

Legislative Battle Over Rules Change to Heat Up Early

Upcoming session to debut with a debate over a contentious proposal to oust a decades-old supermajority rule

Type the phrase “Montana House Rules” into an internet search engine, and a flurry of results turns up, nearly all of them linking to guest opinions published in newspapers across the state written by Republican lawmakers.

To the uninitiated, it might be unclear why tweaking a wonky legislative rule would cause so much commotion, so lawmakers have been making the rounds trying to explain in the simplest terms why it should matter to their constituents.

On one side of the debate, a group of GOP legislators have joined House Democrats in pushing for changes to the House rules, with one of the proposed changes allowing a simple majority, or 51 members, to “blast” a bill out of committee and onto the House floor — the argument for such a change being that the Senate has adopted simple-majority rules, so the House should, too. It would also make it easier for bills to move out of committee for debate, alleviating some of the gridlock that so often congests the legislative process.

Critics of the 60-vote supermajority rule for removing bills from House committees say that in the past it has centralized power by allowing certain legislators who receive “silver bullets” to blast their bills out of committee, while serving to stall and obstruct others.

In previous sessions, an interim House Rules Committee debates and votes on proposed rule changes prior to the start of the legislative session, which begins Jan. 7. But Republicans voted in early December to adjourn the interim committee without taking action on the proposed rule changes.

According to committee chairman Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, a staunch opponent of the rules change, lawmakers will take up the issue again on Jan. 8, the second day of the 2019 session.

Democrats have been pushing for a suite of rules changes for years, and have served in the minority all but two sessions in the past quarter-century. The rules change would weaken the GOP majority’s power. Republicans currently hold a 58-42 majority in the House, but a faction of them have joined Democrats in calling for a rules change, saying a simple majority is more democratic.

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, is among the group of GOP lawmakers who support simple majorities in the House, saying the rule change would provide “a better opportunity for Montanans to have their voices heard through their representatives and reduces the chance that only a handful of opinions will prevail.”

“While our founders intended to make it difficult to legislate they did not make it impossible. They did not apply those same supermajority standards to passing most bills out of committee, or moving most bills from one house to the other; issues the drafters of our constitution clearly considered and applied to specific processes,” Garner wrote in an op-ed.

But supporters of the supermajority rule counter that the House has twice as many members as the Senate, yielding many more bills that require vetting each session.

Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, who previously served as House Speaker and is now the Senate President Pro Tempore, says the supermajority rule helps lawmakers separate the wheat from the chaff, winnowing out the bad bills by scrutinizing them in committee and sending the good bills to the floor for debate.

“We’ve already received 3,000 bill draft requests to move on in a 90-day period of the session,” Blasdel said. “The argument for a rules change is that 51 votes is easier to get things accomplished. But getting a bill passed should be tough. It needs to be vetted and it needs to go through committee. Why upset the apple cart?”

Current House rules require bills to be assigned to certain committees. For example, a tax bill goes before the Taxation Committee, agricultural bills go before the Agriculture Committee, and so on. Because it’s the committee members’ job to become well versed in the subject matters their committee deals with, they serve as a firewall to block out bad bills and provide checks and balances.

Some bills languish and die in “kill committees” without enough votes, while other bills are never assigned to a committee by the House speaker, effectively killing them.

“A lot of bad bills don’t see the light of day,” Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, the current Senate president and former House speaker, said. “If that seems undemocratic, it’s because we’re not a Democracy. And thank God for that. We’re a democratic Republic that has a lot of safeguards built into it.”

Other lawmakers, like Rep. Nancy Balance, R-Hamilton, say the supermajority is unfair and limits whose voices are heard, derailing bills through parliamentary tactics.

“Time to go back to the simple majority rule for bringing bills to the floor of the Montana House and ensure all Montanans are represented as promised by our state’s Constitution,” Ballance wrote in one of the scores of op-eds published statewide.

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