Guest Opinion: New House rules blatantly unfair


Tom Woods

The new speaker of the House recently proposed, then rescinded, a dress code he was trying to impose on the Montana Legislature. While there was a great deal of negative press regarding this issue, there are other, more dangerous rules that are being forced upon the Legislature by a minority within the GOP leadership. These rules range from being simply insulting to Democrats to being extremely dangerous to the legislative process. The following are a few of them.

In a move that can only be seen as sticking a thumb in the eye of Democrats, GOP leaders in the house rules committee stripped the titles of all house Democrats serving as vice chairs of their committees. No valid reason was given for this action aside from a stated desire to “emulate the traditions in the U.S. Congress.” I have never, ever had a constituent request that our Montana Legislature be more like the U.S. Congress, but … there you have it.

GOP leadership also jammed through a rule allowing committee chairmen to bar electronic devices from committee hearings at their whim. This means that no one attending hearings (including legislators) would be allowed to use their cell phones, laptops, iPads or other electronic devices during a hearing. Although the point was raised that many people use the Internet for researching facts and figures during a hearing, which is of great benefit to our constituencies, our objections were disregarded.

In a move that can best be described as clever, but undemocratic, GOP leadership amended our rules in such a way that a great deal of power will now be concentrated in the hands of the speaker of the House. Bear with my explanation here, as I think this strategy was crafted by lawyers, for lawyers.

Under current rules, a speaker can redirect practically any bill that comes out of a committee to the Appropriations Committee. Some speakers have tried to use this as a weapon, referring bills they did not like to this committee for quiet disposal, but as a check to this power, the Legislature could override the speaker with a simple majority vote. The GOP leadership faction is trying to change the override requirement to a super majority (60 votes). This will allow the speaker to kill bills he doesn’t like regardless of majority opinion. That’s undemocratic in that it negates a basic principle of our legislature—that the majority of members decide an issue.

The rules of the Legislature are supposed to provide for rule by the majority while protecting the rights of the minority party. These rules being proposed by do neither. To add insult to injury, the GOP leadership has taken the extraordinary step of excluding the people of Montana from the House floor. This is completely unacceptable.

Montana currently has a rule in place that excludes lobbying on the House floor for two hours prior to a voting session to two hours after. It’s a good rule. What GOP leadership seeks to impose is a 24-hour ban on ALL citizens from the House chamber. When legislators like myself objected, pointing out that the House belongs to the people of Montana, we were told that the need for representatives to have a “refuge” outweighed the need for citizens to have access to us. This is disturbing.

Taken as a whole, the actions of a few GOP leaders show a willingness to disregard custom and principles in their bid to consolidate power in their own hands. Perhaps they will see the error in their ways and rescind these new rules of 2015, but this will only happen if the citizens of Montana raise their voices against these undemocratic rules. It’s your Legislature and your voice. Let it be heard.

Tom Woods is a second-term Democratic legislator from Bozeman. He serves on the House Rules Committee.



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