A half century ago the power in Montana politics was the Montana Power Company. Created to provide electricity for the operations of the Anaconda Copper Company, “the terrible twins” dominated Montana both economically and politically for most of the last century.
Through their organizations they recruited legislative candidates from both parties, kept track of legislative votes, and selectively informed Montanans by the newspapers they controlled.
Much of the old order changed with the adoption of Montana’s 1972 constitution, which opened up and transformed our government. New centers of power compete today in what was once a power monopoly.
This is particularly the case within the Montana Republican Party. It is at war with itself. One faction sees politics in the black and white of fundamental rights and wrongs. To compromise is to agree with what is wrong.
The other more pragmatic faction focuses on finding solutions. They argue that in all aspects of life, including government, compromise is usually necessary to work through problems in order to reach solutions.
The “Conservative Solutions Caucus,” as they prefer to be called, was clearly the more successful of the two factions in the recent legislative session. Their leadership in the compromise on the continuation of Medicaid expansion and sensible solutions to building and infrastructure needs are notable examples.
Opposing the Solutions Caucus is an entity that calls itself “Legistats.” Its website says it “tracks the votes of all Montana legislators and scores them based on how frequently they vote with their party.” Regardless of the issue, if a majority of the members of one party vote differently than the majority of the other party, that vote makes their scorecard.
Public employees, agriculturalists, environmentalists and other interest groups have long published voting records on issues relevant to their interests. These records show how individual legislators voted on the issues. They are extremely useful in informing voters.
Legistats, on the other hand, actually ignores issues. It only measures crowd behavior in which legislators are equal to sheep and inferior to robots. This “go along to get along” approach to legislating is made possible by the Legislature’s “open” electronic voting boards. The legislator who wants to score well on the loyalty list simply copies the votes of party ideologues. A “closed” board would prevent that. If the voting board displayed legislators’ votes only after all of them had voted, they would be forced to think for themselves.
Legislators didn’t have to think about much in the days of corporate control. The same will be true if Legistats prevail over the Solutions Caucus. I think it won’t. Montana isn’t made up of pragmatists or ideologues. Most of us are some of both. We like to think for ourselves and so do the best and most effective legislators. To paraphrase Einstein, those capable of thinking with their own minds and feeling with their own hearts will always triumph over those who won’t or can’t.
Bob Brown is a former Republican Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.