Montana Viewpoint
April 2, 2007

Probably the most prominent feature of this legislative session is, to put it nicely, the ruckus in the House of Representatives. You may hear a lot of different reasons for it, but I will tell you the cause in two words; term limits.

Yes, I know, that’s an arrogant thing to say coming from a legislator, but it’s true. More than anything else an effective legislature is based on relationships among its members; that, and a sense of responsibility for the actions of the individual legislator and for the Legislature itself. The limit of eight years in any one elected office doesn’t give that time to happen.

I served eight years in the House (before term limits), took four years off, and have served seven years in the Senate (after term limits). I can tell you that each body has its own unique personality. I used to characterize the difference between the House and the Senate as the difference between a kegger and a cocktail party. I liked the House; it had vigorous debate, complex rules of procedure and people who used them in ingenious ways, and a beautiful chamber in which, even when empty, you could feel the energy.

My first two tears in the Senate were boring, I missed all the action in the House; but then I came to understand that the Senate offered something that the House didn’t and couldn’t; the opportunity to build trusting friendships that transcend party lines. Those friendships help Senators to debate the issues, not the person.

In fact, that’s a major purpose of that mysterious subject, “Parliamentary (or legislative) Procedure.” We rely on a book called Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure as a supplement to our Rule Books, and reading Mason’s reminds me of how ancient our parliamentary process is, and why we are so formal and ritualistic in our proceedings.

Here are two important excerpts; “Every member of an organization is presumed to be the equal of each other member, and each has rights that must be respected”; and, “It is not the person but the measure (issue) that is the subject of debate, and it is not allowable to arraign (question) the motives of a member, but the nature or consequences of a measure may be condemned in strong terms.”

That’s why we go through all the rigmarole and fancy formal talk like, “Mr. Chairman, would the Senator from Shelby yield to a question?” and that’s why we are never allowed to ask a question directly, but must always get permission from the Chair of the committee to do so. It’s to separate the personality from the issue and to enforce respect by having to be subservient to the Chair. It works.

With term limits, those friendships among members are harder to create, and by the time they are created, one or the other of the two friends is gone. Sure, eight years may seem more than ample time to make friends, but remember that the Legislature meets only 90 working days (not including Sundays) every two years, so that’s basically just a little over a year of working together.

It’s also only a little over a year of on the job training, and any private employer would most likely not want to provide the training and have the employee leave the job. Think of yourself as the employer, because you are.

In the House, because every seat is up for election every two years, there is always a lot of turnover; even before term limits it was around a third of the body. The Senate has staggered four year terms and turnover was then somewhat lower. Because the House has twice as many members as the Senate, it’s harder to form relationships.

Lastly, I think the understanding of the gravity of the decisions we make and the responsibility we have for making them suffers when you know you won’t be there any more than eight years, and if you mess up, it’s someone else’s problem. The Idaho and Wyoming Legislatures have been in Republican control for decades, and those states are well run, largely, I think, because they know there is no one else to blame if they screw things up. In Montana it’s a perpetual game of figuring out how to make the other party look bad.

That practice is detrimental to the process and destroys the trust of the public in what goes on. I have long held that it is easier to make yourself look good by doing good—even if it makes the other side looks good too—than it is to make the other side the scapegoat. In fact, that just makes both sides look foolish and small.

It’s easy to get a swelled head in this calling, and it takes time before you realize that the institution of the Legislature is more important than you are. It belongs to the people of the State of Montana, and needs to be treated with the respect it is due.

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