The rules by which the Montana Legislature conducts the public’s business are generally arcane and complex, and they can make the difference between a bill’s passage or failure.
For about 30 years, one Montana House rule has required 60 votes in the 100-member body to "blast" a bill out of a committee that hasn't voted to send the bill to the full House.
Republicans have been debating the wisdom of retaining this super-majority rule. In several Gazette guest opinions, lawmakers and former lawmakers have extolled the virtues of the super-majority rule for efficiency and ensuring that bills are properly considered by a committee knowledgeable about that type of legislation.
One of the proponents of changing the House rule to simple majority (as the Senate uses) is Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, who served in the Montana Senate in past Legislatures. He recently wrote: “A public discussion on my proposed rule changes was scheduled to occur when the House Rules Committee met on Dec 4. 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.”
A group of former and current lawmakers, including former Speaker Austin Knudsen and Senate President Scott Sales want to keep the super-majority rule. They wrote: “We do not need more power consolidated in the hands of lobbyists and a small group of legislators wishing to bring more Washington, D.C., style back-room deals to our state Legislature.”
Montanans are in agreement that we don’t want our state Legislature to become like our dysfunctional Congress. But the basic problem in Congress isn’t rules; it’s people who can’t or won’t compromise, who don’t listen to each other with a can-do attitude. Our citizen legislators pride themselves on not being professional politicians. We call on all 150 of them to prove their non-politician bona fides by working across party lines.
The 60-vote rule was first implemented at a time when so many bills were being blasted out of House committees that representatives were working late night after night. While the rule improved efficiency, it also opened the door wider for power politics.
The majority leaders of both House and Senate have a lot of power even without the super-majority rule. In the House, where there will be 58 Republicans and 42 Democrats next week, Republican Speaker-elect Greg Hertz of Polson and other leaders elected by the GOP caucus decided which lawmakers serve on the committees. Each committee has a majority of Republican members. The Republican leadership then decides what committee each bill will be assigned to. In recent past sessions, an interesting variety of bills was assigned to House Judiciary, which was known as a kill committee because legislation the speaker opposed was expected to be buried there.
The biggest issue of the 2019 Legislature is likely to be continuing the Medicaid expansion program that started on Jan. 1, 2016, and will end on June 3, 2019 – unless this legislature takes action.
Regardless of what the rule is, the renewal of the Medicaid program that is covering around 96,000 low-income Montana residents, should be voted on and approved by the House. There will be no excuse for assigning such important legislation to a “kill” committee that is predestined to table it.
The Yellowstone County Central Republican Committee weighed in Monday with an email telling Republicans to contact 14 House members across the state “and urge them to vote with the speaker.” These, apparently, are the lawmakers the central committee email says have “put on a purple hat” and are “seeking to weaken the majority caucus.”
We suggest that that Montanans – Republicans, Democrats and independents – let their lawmakers know that they expect them to think for themselves and not blindly follow party leadership. We expect the 100 House members and the 50 Senate members to put their constituents’ interests first, to vote for the good of Montana — not for a political party.