Montana Viewpoint
July 9, 2007

Well, the 2007 Montana Legislative session has gotten low marks from the Montana public—again—and deservedly so. At least, deservedly so if the scoring is based on the legislature as reported by the press. As we all know, conflict is news, cooperation isn’t. This is not to fault the Helena press corps; there was certainly enough conflict to overshadow any positive news that was reported, and frankly, the men and women of the press know what the public finds interesting, and it’s not the times when the legislators are getting along with each other real fine, thanks for asking. So while in the House of Representatives they were fighting like alley cats, in the Senate everybody got along pretty well but it didn’t have a lot of news value.

The two-party system as it is practiced today is more to blame for the “partisanship” than anything. I put partisanship in quotes because there are two perceptions of the word: the political one, which means, basically, differences of opinion; and the public perception, which means fighting and rudeness. The public perception is reinforced by the political parties themselves, which do the best they can to find negative things to say about the other party. I could try to go into an analysis and history of when this all began, but just as memory savors only the good times in a bad relationship, it savors the decent in the political past. Whether there was ever any good or decency in either case is highly subjective.

At any rate, it takes two to tango the dance of partisanship, which raises the question, what if there’s only one dancer? The states of Wyoming and Idaho are cases in point. They have been under one party rule for a very long time. I don’t know the legislative history of Wyoming, but I do know that the last time the Democrats controlled anything in the Idaho Legislature was 1964 when they took control of the House of Representatives. In 2004, when the Republicans swept Congress and many statehouses the joke in Idaho was that Senate Democrats could hold a meeting in a Volkswagen Bug—all three of them.

Idaho might not be run the way Idaho Democrats want it to be, but it is well run, in my opinion. Fortunately the Idaho Republicans had some object lessons in failed government from Montana; there’s no electrical deregulation in Idaho, for instance. No term limits either.

But what intrigues me most about one party rule is whom do you blame when things go wrong? Try as you might, there’s only one party to blame, so any Idaho Republican legislator with a lick of sense is going to remember that the blame is all theirs for the asking. As a result, they are careful—prudent, even—about what they do. All this, and no partisan bickering; how can they stand it?

Nebraska is another state that is a one party state—Independent. There are no party affiliations, and everyone’s a senator, just for good measure. A friend of mine in the Nebraska legislature told me that everyone knew who was a Democrat and who was a Republican (she was a nominal Democrat), but not formally identifying party affiliation still hindered whatever finger pointing that might take place.

I’m sure they made everyone a senator because senators are just by nature a thoughtful bunch, especially in Montana now that Term Limits are in full blossom. I’m serious, though. I’ll give you two instances; in one, a friend of mine was reflecting about he had changed over the course of his political career. He marveled at how immature (his word) he had been, and how wise (my word) he was now. Then a thoughtful expression began to overtake his face and he said, “If I think I’m more mature now, will I think how immature I was now in ten years?” That’s deep thinking.

Another friend—these are both Republicans, by the way, as opposed to me—and I had a long and fulfilling conversation about the importance of trust and the importance of following established procedure in the legislature. That’s taking the historical view of things, and it’s also an acknowledgement of the gravity of the tasks we perform. These two fellows and I don’t agree on much politically, but we do agree on the most important things of all; that there are good, thoughtful people in the Montana legislature, and that they care very deeply about the responsibility given them.

We know that we can differ strongly on matters of opinion, and remain friends. 

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