Montana Viewpoint
April 30, 2007

The Montana Legislature has adjourned in a cloud of confrontation and acrimony, and I suspect the next few weeks before the Special Session will be filled with politicians defending themselves and blaming others. We may not like it, but those are the odds; after all, it’s more fun to be angry than accommodating.

That may seem like a strange thing to say, but think about it; compromise is work, anger isn’t. To compromise you have to take other people’s views into consideration, you have to keep your temper, you have to do things you don’t want to do and give up things that you really want to keep.

Anger and indignation, on the other hand, suffer none of these drawbacks. You get to be self-righteous, dogmatic, and dismissive of opposing arguments. You can even yell and call people names. You do not have to give up anything or suffer defeat; and, if you are big enough or good enough to bully the other side, you can get everything you want.

If that kind of intellectual contest is between two people the victory or defeat doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It does when there are others involved, and it matters a lot when you have sworn an oath to serve them and protect them.

I understand people who have strong feelings about their political beliefs. I’m one of them. I, too, would like to give to the people of Montana my vision of what would serve them best. I recognize that others whose opinions are the opposite of mine feel exactly the same way. But since legislators work for the public good it’s more important that they suppress their strong opinions and work towards statesmanship.

Statesmanship requires that we respect the opinion of others—not because we agree with it, but because we acknowledge the right of others to believe differently than we do. Statesmanship also requires that we treat others with respect—not because we like them, but because you can’t negotiate with those you treat disrespectfully. It is hard to work with someone who has publicly berated you.

And statesmanship also requires that leaders listen to one another. Anyone can talk; it takes patience to listen.

Finding compromise involves consultation. It is not merely offering the opposition what you think they want; there has to be a discussion in which both sides actively participate in the give and take; where each side makes its own decision on what they are willing to accept; and which leads to a mutual agreement on the final package. Some of that went on in the final weeks of the Legislative session, but not—obviously—enough, and the discussion, such as it was, started too late.

We are now faced with a critical choice; to continue as before, or to work—from the very beginning—towards compromise through statesmanship to get the issues resolved. That involves not making strong statements before the Special Session, not drawing lines in the sand before negotiations toward compromise have begun, and not making demands that cannot be retracted without loss of face.

I believe that the people of Montana care more about legislators working together in a civil manner than about what they accomplish.

It’s not a lot to ask.

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