Montana Voices: Finding respectful discourse at the Legislature

By David Crisp/Last Best News

If you have abandoned all hope for American politics, you probably should stop reading right here.

But if you still see a spark, here’s a wisp of air to help keep it alit.

David Crisp

Touring the state Capitol on a visit to Helena last weekend, I was struck anew by an old thought: The old-timers who built this country may not have wanted a lot of government, but they wanted the government they had done right. That high dome, those oversized paintings, the marble columns, even the sculpted doorknobs, all point to a conviction that government should be practiced in a setting worthy of its solemn obligations.

Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, was attentive enough to invite us onto the House floor, then he conducted an off-the-cuff tour of the chamber. While my wife and I were admiring the Charlie Russell painting that fills practically one whole wall, the friend we were staying with struck up a conversation with one of the few legislators working on a blustery Sunday afternoon.

It had the makings of a classic confrontation. Our friend is a vegetarian who works for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Twice at breakfast that morning, she had politely but firmly suggested to restaurant employees that they get rid of Styrofoam to-go boxes.

The legislator was a Republican rancher from Eastern Montana. I’m not identifying him or my friend because I didn’t tell either of them I would write about their conversation. But the showdown between two such wildly disparate points of view drew me in.

By the time I broke away from Charlie Russell, they were discussing legislative collegiality. Would the House work better, my friend asked, if representatives were seated alphabetically instead of by party? The problem, he said, isn’t that legislators can’t get along; it’s that they fundamentally disagree about certain issues.

If you adamantly oppose the death penalty, he said, there’s not much common ground to find with someone who favors capital punishment. A bigger frustration, he said, is that Gov. Steve Bullock vetoes so many bills—131 by his count—and that Democrats won’t override a veto even when the original bill passed with strong bipartisan support.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the legislator said, was so demonstrative about his vetoes, branding iron and all, that he diverted attention from what was in the actual bills. Bullock’s quieter approach puts the focus on the bills themselves, which just adds to the frustration.

The real problem, he said, is not that legislators can’t get along but that party loyalty sometimes outweighs loyalty to the Constitution. Yes, I chimed in, Democrats complained about George W. Bush’s executive orders, Republicans complained about Barack Obama’s, and now Democrats are again complaining about Donald Trump’s. We never get to a real debate about the merits of executive orders.

After all, he said, what’s the first word in the Constitution? “We,” my friend said, but he already had jumped past the Preamble to Article I. “All,” he said, meaning that all legislative powers are vested in Congress.

As evidence that legislators mostly get along, he pulled out the agenda for Monday’s session. Most of the bills on it had passed out of committee by wide bipartisan margins. A few had not, including one aimed at keeping Montana courts from imposing foreign laws and another aimed specifically at stopping Great Falls from assessing $500 fines against people caught texting while driving.

I assumed that Democrats opposed the first bill because they thought it was stupid, but I was puzzled by the partisan divide on the texting bill. Republicans always say the government is best that is closest to the people, I thought, and this seemed like a local issue. Democrats, on the other hand, should hate to see government imposing unreasonable fines as a way to prop up revenues.

But I had it backward. I should have known. Republicans have been behind efforts in recent years to block cities from passing nondiscrimination ordinances, creating sanctuary cities, raising the minimum wage, imposing gun regulations, and so on.

Neither my friend nor I was eager to argue about Sharia law or municipal fines. But when a passing legislator mentioned the snail darter, our friend was ready. Let’s talk instead about something I know about, she said: dams that block salmon from swimming upstream to spawn.

We may need some of those dams, she said, but we need the salmon, too. Can’t we work something out?

But what about environmental rules, he wanted to know, that block cattle from stream beds and end up compacting the soil so that the stream is left in worse shape?

Our friend asked, isn’t there a third way? Yes, he agreed, water could be piped downhill away from the stream. Then he and a passing legislator veered off to the topic of bicycles, which they said should be taxed and registered, just as cars are.

My friend asked, do bicycles cause road damage? She pointed out the hazards of bicyclists forced to share roads with cars and trucks.

“Don’t you believe in survival of the fittest?” he asked. I think he was kidding about that, but I had to jump in.

“No,” I said, “that’s why governments are instituted among men.”

“Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” he added, not necessarily agreeing but glad to be on ground where we both stood firmly: support for the founding documents.

The legislator took keen interest when our friend started talking about alternatives to meat and dairy production. Not only are almond milk and soy milk easy to find, she said, but producers can’t keep up with the demand for macadamia milk. Meat substitutes have gotten so similar to the real thing, she said, that they offend her vegetarian sensibilities.

“I still like eating my own,” he said, perhaps inwardly wondering whether the environmental and financial costs may someday cause beef production to fall beneath the grinding wheels of technology.

My friend and the legislator had been at it now for close to an hour, and he showed no signs of impatience or anger. If all we want from our representatives is that they hear us out, then he gave us everything we could ask for. My friend kept saying that we had to find a third way, if not a third party, to get around political roadblocks.

He seemed to agree. He showed us a stack of printed emails he had to sift through, none of them from his own constituents but all pushing for or against one bill or another. Perhaps there could be a better approach.

“You’re a vegetarian and I’m a rancher,” he said, “and we’ve just had a civil conversation.”

But it was time to hit the highway back to Billings. As we left the House floor, I told him, “Don’t screw up the country for us.”

He chuckled.

“We’ll try not to,” he said.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and columnist for Last Best News.