The Billings Outpost

Medicaid bill showed Legislature at its best

JIM ELLIOT - Guset Commentator

Dreams may have come true for those Montanans who yearn for state legislators to put aside partisan differences and get something done. The drama surrounding the passage of the bipartisan Medicaid expansion legislation, Senate Bill 405, is one that can be long remembered because it was not about one political party fighting the other, it was about one group of legislators who vehemently opposed the bill — all Republicans — vs. a coalition of legislators from both parties who supported it, and it was all done by using the rules of the game.

For those unfamiliar with the issue, SB 405, introduced by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, was one Republican’s answer to getting lower-income families insured through the expansion of Medicaid. It was not the full-blown expansion that Democrats wanted (and hospitals too) but it was one that met with the approval of a significant number of Republican senators who, in coalition with Senate Democrats, passed the bill and sent it to the House where it was promptly killed in committee. The ensuing drama of how a group of House Republicans and all Democrats forced HB 405 out of committee and got it to the House floor for debate and ultimate passage is worth talking about.

Mostly, the legislative process is a mystery to the Montana public. It is, however, governed by a set of rules as are sporting contests, and in both cases those rules can be interpreted differently by different people.

But while in sports the final say is in the hands of impartial referees, in the Legislature it is in the hands of a majority of the legislators, a majority of which usually is made up of the members of the political party that has the most members. It is the majority party that elects the officers of the Legislature, sets the rules, calls the shots, and can — and does — run roughshod over the opposition, the minority party.

Each body of the Legislature, the House and the Senate, has its own set of rules for conducting business. Then there is a set of “Joint Rules” that defines how the House and Senate work together, and then there is the guidebook of how the legislative process works called, Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure. I know that sounds mystifying, but it’s not much different than the way any organization runs their meetings. Each organization will have its own bylaws governing how meetings are run and decisions made, and their controlling source of reference is Robert’s Rules of Order, which is not that much different from Mason’s.

The speaker is the boss of the House. The speaker assigns legislators to committees, decides which committee will hear what bills, presides over the meeting of the entire House, and always calls the shots and makes the decisions, well, almost always.

I say “almost” because there are also rules that prevent the speaker from being a total dictator, and these rules allow a majority of the legislators to overturn a speaker’s decision. A speaker’s decision can be challenged by any member of the House and if properly seconded, is voted on. And, almost always, the speaker’s decision is upheld because the members of his party stand behind him.

In the debate on Medicaid expansion, Speaker Austin Knudson’s party didn’t unite behind him, and for the first time that I am aware of the speaker’s decisions were overturned by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. That is a pretty big deal, and frankly, a serious blow to the authority of the speaker, who had a series of his rulings overturned in one day.

The speaker did his best to use the rules to prevent SB 405 from passing the House, and the coalition of legislators in favor of the bill, under the guidance of Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, used the same rules to bring SB 405 to the floor for debate.

Rep. Rob Cook, R-Brady, carried the bill on the House floor and was also instrumental in its passage.

Same rules, different opinions, opposite results. This is legislating at its finest, and it is that way because it is people coming together over an idea rather than a political ideology.

SB 405 is not the only controversial legislation enjoying the support of members of both parties, but the manner in which it was moved to the House floor for debate will be remembered as a most artful use of the House rules to get something done for the people of Montana.

Jim Elliott is a former Montana legislator from Trout Creek.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 April 2015 15:23

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