Montana Viewpoint

September 6, 2004 

Come November a lot of us will be going to the polls to elect people many of us have never heard of to jobs whose purpose and duties may also be a mystery, but which we all know is called “government.”

Since this is considered a fairly momentous decision on the part of the people, I thought an appropriate topic for an article would be to write about just what those government positions are, and more importantly, how they are designed to interact with each other. The people who are running for those jobs will have to make themselves known to you without my help. 

Those who wrote our constitution were mighty suspicious about the concentration of political power in a single political body, so our government was designed with a system of intricate “checks and balances” designed to curb the potential abuse of concentrated power. Because of that, American governments have the unique distinction of taking an extremely long time to pass laws. 

That’s in comparison to a parliamentary system of government like Canada’s where the party that wins the most seats in the Parliament runs the whole shebang and change happens with the speed of rapid lightening. The leader of the party that wins the most seats becomes the Prime Minister, the party becomes the government, and the only check on their power other than the people is the court system. 

In America we have two branches of government (the executive and the legislative) directly elected by the voters, who quite often don’t vote a straight party ticket. The result can be a president or governor of one party and one or both houses of the legislature of a different party. That slows things down, and was designed to do so. 

A president or governor cannot make a law or appropriate money, that’s the job of the legislative branch. They can, however, suggest laws, approve or veto laws passed by the legislature, have the power of appointment to non-elected offices, and serve as Commander in Chief of the military. 

It’s the legislature that has the power to write law, appropriate money and to confirm or deny executive appointments. The national legislature is called Congress, and most state legislatures are called—rather unimaginatively—legislatures. 

All states except Nebraska have legislatures with two Houses, usually called the Senate and the House of Representatives. Nebraska has only one house—the Senate—and members run without party affiliation. 

Nationally the Senate and House serve as a check and balance against each other. The number of congressmen a state has is determined by its population. There are an average of 600,000 people in a congressional district; ranging from Wyoming with 501,000 to Montana with 917,000. California has the greatest population and therefore at 53 congressmen the greatest number of seats in the U.S.House of Representatives. That gives them 12% of the members of congress. 

The number of congressional seats rose with the population until 1913, when the current number of 435 seats was written into law. In 1913 the population of theUnited States was about 92 million, or 211,000 people per congressional district. Today our population is about 280 million.

To counteract the disproportionate congressional power that heavily populated states have, every state is allotted two Senators, so while in the House the larger states have more power than the smaller, in the Senate the power is equally divided among the states. Legislation that makes it through one house may not make it through the other house in the same shape it began with, or it might not get through at all. 

Our founders knew that there is an ebb and flow to popular opinion, and that an issue that is hot one year may not be the next. To prevent a knee-jerk reaction to this constantly changing nature of popular opinion they gave different offices different terms. The House, with two year terms, is the most sensitive to short term opinion trends, at least if the members want to get reelected. 

The President is a bit more isolated from shifts in public opinion with a four year term, and the Senate by staggered six year terms. The entire House is up for reelection every two years, but only one third of the Senate. This ensures that a flash in the pan issue is looked at with more regard to the long run by the President and Senate even if the House reacts to it immediately.

Montana House members are elected to a two year term and senators have staggered four year terms. Montana has 100 house districts with 9170 people—one percent of the population—per district. A senate district is made up of two house districts, and has 18,340 people in it. 

Finally, there is the court system which serves as an overall check on unconstitutional laws that might make it through the Legislative and Executive branches. (Legislators do enact laws that legal counsel has told them may have constitutional problems.) Federal Supreme Court Justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate and have life tenure to isolate them from public whim and fancy. Montana Justices are elected for an eight year term. 

In each position a different cycle of human opinion is served, and each position has some power over other positions. It’s not quick, but it is thorough, and it has worked pretty well now since 1789.


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