Montana House should operate on majority rules to ensure fair proceedings

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Montana House Rules Guest Column

Too often we see the results of gridlock and partisan shenanigans in Washington DC. Efforts are focused solely on beating the other side, and not on representing the people in passing budgets and good policy. Power is centralized with party bosses and lobbyists, and not with the people. This results in “Continuing Resolutions”, “Government Shutdowns” and chaos. Unfortunately, there are those that believe that this is how things should be run in Montana politics.

The Montana Constitution, as revised in 1972, compels that supermajority votes are required in certain cases, dealing with State Debt, Trust Accounts, Impeachment, Overriding Vetoes, and Amending the Constitution. These are important requirements and should not be changed.

The Constitution also requires that the Legislature choose its officers, keep a journal and make rules for its proceedings. These rules are voted on each session by the Legislative membership. The Senate rules have consistently reflected a “simple majority” and fair format. While the House rules have also historically reflected a “simple majority” format, in the past few sessions these rules have been amended to reflect “supermajority” requirements. This simply means that a minority of Legislators and Party Bosses get to make the decisions regarding what is best for Montana, and not the whole of the House. “Kill Committees” are formed, bills are “pocket vetoed” (not allowed to be heard at all), and lobbyists that can control a single chamber leader or a few party bosses are ultimately in control. This truly results in the “Tyranny of the Minority” as a few “Bosses” get to decide Montana policy, and not the true Majority that represent the wishes of all Montanans.

Legislation can certainly be controversial, with different parties arguing the merits of the bill. These arguments should be made publicly, and in a fair and impartial hearing. Sending bills to committees designed to simply kill them, without fair argument or recourse from the body of the House, is a disservice to the people of Montana. What do those that fight against fair rules fear? Why do fair hearings and majority voting requirements cause such concern? Just like in DC, it is all about power. It seems prudent, however, that every Montana citizen should demand the right to be heard. That bills should be fairly argued and should live or die on their merits, and not on the wishes of a few in power.

A simple majority format redistributes power to all members of the Legislature and facilitates honest debate. The convoluted argument asserting that “simple majority” rules endanger our “Constitutional Republic” is false and deliberately misleading. Had the framers of our Constitution wished to saddle the Legislature with additional “super majority” rules, they would have done so at the 1972 Convention.

A public discussion on my proposed rule changes was scheduled to occur when the House Rules Committee met on Dec 4th. However, the Chairman of the Committee refused to entertain or even hear the proposal and adjourned the meeting simply to stifle and end all debate. Ironically, this behavior perfectly illustrates the need for the proposed changes.

The thought of returning power back to the entire House does not sit well with those who currently stand to profit from the status quo. As such, Legislators are being pressured to preserve the flawed supermajority rules, but I hope there are enough brave souls that will join me in voting to end this dangerous practice and return control to Montana citizens. I believe that Montanans expect our Legislature to buck the DC trends and to practice bipartisanship, civility and to work for real solutions. For this to occur, we must insist that every bill and Montana voice be heard, and that proceedings are fair and controlled by the whole and not just a few.

Ed Buttrey is currently the State Senator for Senate District 11 and the State Representative-elect for House District 21.