House rules package passes key hurdle
Proponents say the amended rules would promote fairness and open debate. They could also advantage Republican dissenters and Democrats.
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MONTANA — An amended set of rules to govern the Montana House of Representatives passed Wednesday afternoon after heated debate within the Republican caucus.
The new set of rules, in addition to making a number of technical changes, will lower the number of votes required to pull tabled bills out of committee and bring them to the floor for debate from 60 to 55. These “blast motions” are procedural tools that have in the past allowed factions of the GOP to team up with minority-party Democrats to revive — and in some cases pass — key pieces of legislation.
The rules will also require bills heard in select committees — issue-focused ad hoc committees appointed by legislative leadership — to be subsequently referred to the Legislature’s standing committees. At this stage, the change will primarily impact a select committee dedicated to election law reforms helmed by Republican hardliners who have promoted theories of election fraud.
The rules resolution passed on a tight vote in the House Rules Committee Tuesday, and then by a 57-42 vote on the House floor Wednesday.
“I believe that these rules provide fairness and the quality of debate our constituents expect of us,” House Rules Committee Chair Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, said on the floor Wednesday.
The new threshold would mean that about a third of the 68-member House Republican caucus would need to vote with Democrats to blast a bill to the floor.
“A third of a majority caucus wanting to hear a bill is justification for each of us in this body to be able to hear and hold debate on a bill,” said Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, who brought the amendment in the House Rules Committee Tuesday.
The change would also make it more difficult for leadership to quash bills by assigning them to so-called kill committees.
“In the past, bills have been referred to committees for the express purpose of preventing them from reaching the House floor for debate,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, a vocal supporter of the rule change. “In other instances, committee chairmen have effectively killed bills by scheduling them for committee hearings too late to meet transmittal deadlines. Both of these practices impede the process of fair and open debate and in extreme cases have been used to coerce legislators to take actions contrary to their principles or the interests of their constituents.”
The blast motion threshold has varied over the years: two-thirds, three-fifths, the number of majority lawmakers, a simple majority (the margin required in the Senate). Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, argued that the changes have been calculated to benefit Republican dissenters and the minority party.
“The recent history lesson that we just received … fails to inform you of how that number changes every year based on what number is required to add to the minority party to get to a majority on the floor,” she said. “Last session, we had this exact same discussion — it’s just that it was a different number. It was a small change from 67 to 60. But don’t worry, it’s just a small change. But now the numbers are different so we have to do different mental mathematical gymnastics to get to 55.”
Collectively, the rule changes mark a victory for comparatively moderate Republicans willing to cross the aisle for votes on big issues, a loose group sometimes known as the Conservative Solutions Caucus. That underlying dynamic generated sharp criticism from other Republicans, who painted a picture of a shadowy cabal working to subvert the will of voters who sent a Republican supermajority to Helena in November.
“Every single one of you knows exactly what’s going on right now,” said an animated Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade. “These rules are being used to manipulate this system and empower a small group of people by using the minority party for the votes.”
The new select committee rule would prevent the election integrity committee from drafting and passing legislation on its own. It would not require the standing committee to hold another hearing on bills emerging from the select committee.
Hinkle, who unsuccessfully brought an amendment on the floor to reverse the change, said it would mean that lawmakers on standing committees would vote on bills for which they haven’t heard full testimony and debate. Placing a bill in double committees impedes its path to the floor, he continued.
He also argued that supporters of the rules package are espousing contradictory principles — that they want to make it easier to bring bills they like to the floor while also obstructing legislation they don’t favor.
“Here’s what gamesmanship is: Let’s just trot over to this side and lower that blast motion so we can make sure we get our key bills out, the ones we’ve made deals on, and then nip on over to this side over here and put more restrictions on bills I don’t want to come out of committee,” he said, voice raised and visibly animated. “Because the Speaker has already created a select committee with the Senate … and that committee is tasked with doing a specific thing on a specific issue. And I would venture to say that these representatives here, it’s an issue that they don’t agree with.”
Bedey told Montana Free Press after the vote he didn’t see the contradiction.
“I think the suggestion that there’s a conflict or a contradiction in my positions concerning blast motions and concerning the progression of bills through select committees is like comparing apples to oranges,” he said. “In the case of blast motions, we are simply asserting a mechanism by which a bill has a possibility to come to the floor for debate. In the case of a select committee, it is good legislative practice to ensure that whatever comes out of a select committee, which is by its very nature ad hoc, is subject to the review of one of the standing committees that has traditional authority or oversight of that particular policy area.”
The vote Wednesday came after days of vote-whipping and pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the issue as well as constituents and local Republican committees. One email to a lawmaker from Lewis and Clark Republican Women President Donna Elford encourages a no-vote on the resolution and to “stay true to our party.”
“They take away our super majority impact and diminishes [sic] the hard work we the people did to get this majority,” Elford wrote in an email obtained by MTFP.
Rep. Terry Moore, R-Billings, decried the amount of pressure being exerted from both sides so early in the session, especially on freshmen legislators.
“It was on both sides. All of the posturing — and I just found it unfair that freshmen were being leveraged before we even got here, they weren’t even sworn in,” Moore, who voted against the rules, told MTFP after the floor session ended.
Among the other votes against the rules resolution was that of Rep. Larry Brewster, R-Billings, who also brought an ultimately failed amendment to increase the blast motion threshold to 60 votes. In committee Tuesday, Brewster had voted for the amendment that did the exact opposite.
“The arguments, a couple of them are rational, so I thought I’ll give it a chance,” he said. “After I had time to think about it, I didn’t think it was a good idea.”
He acknowledged feeling pressure on the issue, though.
“I just got a lot of emails,” he said. “You know, central committees have email lists.”
Still, he expressed a realistic appraisal of the usefulness of parliamentary jostling.
“I’m a rules guy,” said Brewster, a former Billings City Council member. “On the city council, I used the rules, and a lot of council people don’t pay attention to the rules to their demise. Because you can manipulate them. And that’s just a tool you have. It’s not good or bad, it’s the tools you have.”