One of us is a Democrat; the other is a Republican. We each served more than a quarter of a century in the Montana Legislature, mostly at the same time. We also held positions of top leadership in both the Senate and House of Representatives. We have been serious rivals, but always friends; now we are serious old friends. For the first time, we are standing together to pass on a perspective few others can share.
Over 30 years ago the legislature was at times overwhelmed with bills introduced for almost every imaginable purpose. A specially composed bipartisan commission was formed to recommend a solution to the deepening problem of late-night House sessions chaotically passing, reconsidering, killing, and again reconsidering myriad pieces of legislation. The key adopted recommendation was to allow only 40 members of the 100 member House of Representatives to keep bills bottled up in committees.
This helped reduce floor time, but it also greatly increased the power of the House Speaker who assigns bills to the committees and also appoints the committee members. A bill once assigned to a committee could simply be “tabled” in the committee and held there indefinitely, effectively killing it. Only a “super majority” of 60 votes could “blast” it out of committee and onto the floor so it could be debated by all the elected representatives.
This rule, created faster floor efficiency, but has been used by some House leaders to more easily keep bills they don’t like simply buried alive in committees.
We both have come to agree that the 60-vote rule has clearly outlived its usefulness, and has now become a worse impairment to the legislative process than the problem it was designed to eliminate. While our state constitution requires super-majorities in certain special cases, power politics is not one of them.
It is time to gently deliver Montana’s 30-year experiment with minority control to our history’s legislative trash bin. The rules of the Montana Senate provide for the protection of the rights of the minority, but not rule by the minority. House rules should do the same. The constitutional responsibility of the Montana House of Representatives is to represent the Montana people. It can’t do that by arbitrarily granting super power to the representatives of only a minority of the people, which is a clear violation of one of the fundamental precepts of representative democracy. The Montana House should return to the rules the Senate has always followed, get back to its traditional roots, and rid itself of its “60 vote rule.”
Hal Harper, Helena, is a past Speaker of the Montana House
Bob Brown, Whitefish, is a past President of the Montana Senate