Montana Viewpoint

June 7, 2004  

Many legislative candidates, myself included, will talk about “working in a bipartisan manner,” or  “working across the aisle,” or “working with members of the opposite party” if they are elected. But what exactly does that mean in principle and practice? In principle, it means that the candidates are not portraying themselves as hidebound ideologues whose campaign slogan is “My way or the highway.” In practice, it means that they’ll be bipartisan if they have to.

Where this compulsive need for the bipartisan mantra comes from, I’m not exactly sure, but I think it stems from the distaste that people have for political mudslinging. Montanans flat do not like to hear other people badmouthed, and to have politicians do that on a public stage offends our sensibilities. So, naturally, all candidates take the oath of bipartisanship as the main plank in their platforms. 

Where the rubber hits the road, bipartisanship is much a different matter, and occurs only in situations where something critical cannot be had without some votes from “the other side of the aisle.” (In the Montana Legislature Democrats and Republicans sit on opposite sides of a center aisle; other states may seat alphabetically and not by party.)

Whichever party controls the Legislature gets its way without having to resort to bipartisan solutions unless the margin of control is very thin or in situations where the extremes of each party will not vote for a measure supported by leadership.  

Is this wrong? After all, many of us vote for people based on their political party affiliation because we believe in that party’s principles. Why would we want them to compromise by accommodating the views of the other party?  

In a legislature the minority party would just love to work in a bipartisan fashion because it is mostly shut out of the discussion anyway. If there are two identical bills on an important issue, and one is sponsored by a member of the majority party and the other by a member of the minority party, you can be almost guaranteed that the bill that passes will be the one sponsored by the member of the majority party. This is a most distasteful use of political power, but it happens all the time. The idea is that a member of the minority party doesn’t get the credit for a good idea.  

What should happen is that the bills be co-sponsored by members of the opposite parties, and indeed, that is what does happen in a bipartisan deal. Unfortunately, when you see that happen, it’s usually to prevent either party from getting the all the blame for passing an unpopular law.

An enormous proportion of bills do receive bipartisan support, some controversial, some not, because the issue is not one of party ideology. For me, the most satisfying debate is one where I truly don’t know how I will vote until debate is over. Then I know I have participated in a true exchange of views—democracy at its finest. 

In a greater sense, bipartisan should mean treating members of the opposite party with respect and allowing their right to have an opposing position. That not only gives citizens the kind of politics they would like to see, it gives legislators a basis of mutual trust so that they eventually can work together on an issue. It is not easy to work with someone who has disparaged your person and beliefs, and avoiding personal attacks promotes mutual respect. 

There is a gentleman on “the other side of the aisle” who has my utmost respect, as he does of most other legislators. Why? Because he has never belittled anyone’s ideas or character, and always worked for his vision of what’s best for Montana. He is a pragmatist who believes in doing what we can even if he doesn’t totally agree with it—as long as it moves us a step forward. Curiously enough, I can’t ever remember hearing him use the word “bipartisan.” Sort of like a person with true humility not having to call attention to how humble he is.

That’s what we Montanans want, and that’s what we deserve, but we don’t often get it. What we do get is what my wife likes to label politicians: “people with big egos and thin skins.” But at least it’s “bipartisan.”


In last week’s Montana Viewpoint article on Driver Examiners, I was incorrect in stating that the fees from driver’s licenses do not come near to covering the costs of the operation. In fact, in 2003 the unit took in $4.8 million against $3.5 million in operating costs. However the $4.8 million goes directly to the state’s General Fund and is not used to cover expenses. The Legislature funds the Unit with money from the Fuel Tax account and the General Fund.

The error is mine, and mine alone, and I apologize for any confusion or consternation I may have caused.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620