Montana Viewpoint

November 13, 2006

Many fine citizens who are elected to the legislature begin to see themselves as more important than they really are. It’s easy to get a high opinion of yourself when almost everyone tells you what a great job you’re doing (even if you’re not), and no sane person will say bad things about you to your face.

In fact, the best of the three great pieces of advice I’ve been given over my 14 years in the Montana Legislature was: “two years after you leave here no one will remember you.” It was a not so subtle way of telling me I was less important than I might think. (The other two were; “the waste basket will be your best friend,” and “don’t fall in love with your own ideas.”)

Some legislators come to believe they are very powerful people, and there is a danger in that. There are no powerful legislators, but there are legislators who know how to use power, and use it well.

A couple of weeks ago I was able to give a constituent of mine some help just by making a phone call. “Boy,” she said, “I wish I had that kind of power!”

“But you do,” I told her, “You just loaned it to me to use on your behalf.”

It took me a long time to figure out that whatever power I thought I had was only a loaner. I used to think I was pretty hot stuff, that is, until I decide to retire from the House of Representatives. As soon as people found out about my plans, they took a little longer to return my phone calls. Actually, they took a lot longer.

One day I was walking down a Capitol corridor and overheard the Director of Fish Wildlife and Parks telling a legislator that his county would get another game warden. I reminded him that he had promised that game warden position to my county. I should have known better.

“Sorry, Jim, but you’re history, this guy is still going to be here next year.”

That let me know how important I was. It also let me know what a phony this particular fellow had been in his prior dealings with me.

I’ve given this plenty of thought on the long highway trips we make here in Montana, and I’ve come up with a philosophy that probably a lot of people already knew. But it was an important discovery for me. The power isn’t in the person, it’s in the office, and it’s only entrusted to you as long as you use it wisely.

That power that I told my constituent she had was just a part of the power of the office—her part. By itself, it would only give me just as much power as she had, but combined with the power my other constituents loaned me it became significant enough to get a bureaucrat’s attention. The power of the office is the sum of the power of all the people represented by that office.

That power is the tool which the legislator uses to serve the people, and like any conscientious craftsman knows, tools must be cared for and treated with respect; especially if they’re on loan. It is that tool in the hands of a capable legislator that makes democracy work.

But don’t just take my word for it; here’s the real McCoy; the Constitution of the State of Montana: Article II, section 1:

“All political power is vested in and derived from the people. All government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.”

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