Change weakens checks, balances

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We question the wisdom of making significant changes to the rules of operation in the Montana House as a group of legislators are currently trying to do. One of the proposed changes would allow a simple majority (51 members) to “blast” a bill out of committee and on to the House floor. Their logic is that the Montana Senate operates under simple majority rules so the House should follow suit. The House has twice as many members as the Senate; thus, there are significantly more bills introduced in the House each session. Respecting committee work and requiring super majority votes and Speaker controls under certain circumstances allows for an orderly and expedited legislative process. Just about every other state House across the country operates under similar rules.

In the Montana House, every bill is required to get a hearing, and committees with jurisdiction and experience in the bill’s particular subject matter spend hours reading bills, listening to public input, debating the merits of the bill and proposing amendments. With a simple majority in the committee, bills are voted up or down, and either stay in committee or move onto the House floor for consideration of the entire body. If House members desire to overturn a committee decision, then 60 members of the House must vote to “blast” the bill from the committee for a full debate on the House floor.

The members proposing House rule changes claim that bills are subject to unfair committee hearings. Currently, the House rules have an appendix that requires bills to be assigned to certain committees. One proposed rule change would eliminate this appendix and allow a simple majority of legislators (51) to move a bill from one committee to another committee, allowing a bill to be shopped from committee to committee in order to pass it to the House floor for a final vote. Under the change, a human services bill could end up in the Transportation Committee, whose membership may not be well versed in the subject matter, just because it’s an easier path to the House floor. This type of process encourages back room deals with little public involvement and gives lobbyists the power to push bills through the process by convincing a small group of legislators to do their bidding.

In order that a new law is properly vetted, the Legislature must ensure a thorough hearing process, robust public input and proper checks and balances. The current House rules ensure those checks and balances. The proposed changes to the rules may not.

Contact your Legislator and let them know that we do not need more power consolidated into the hands of lobbyists and a small group of Legislators wishing to bring more Washington, D.C.-style backroom deals to our State Legislature. Ask them to keep the House rules that have worked well for three decades.

Former Speaker Austin Knudsen; Culbertson, former Speaker Mark Blasdel, Somers; former Speaker and Current President Scott Sales, Bozeman; former President Bob Keenan, Bigfork; former President Debbie Barrett, Dillon; former Speaker Doug Mood, Seeley Lake; and former Speaker Dan McGee, Laurel.

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