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The End of Pocket Vetoes – For this Session

The 64th Legislative Session kicked off with rulemaking. This is the traditional start to any session. The body is sworn in and adopts the rules of procedure under which they will work for the session. While this is frequently so automatic that many can’t remember the event, the first week of the 2015 Session started off a bit differently.

The House Rules committee chaired by Representative Jeff Essmann, past president of the Senate, had prepared draft proposals that increased the threshold for a number of actions from a simple majority to a 3/5 majority. This is a significantly higher threshold to reach and only the most egregious actions would garner that much dissent.

Photo Credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/55174923@N00/347783150/">sdr. mohamad lutfi hakim ariff</a> via <a href="http://compfight.com">Compfight</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>

Additionally, the Speaker had already shown his hand in the makeup of his committees. Past Senate leaders from 2013, such as Representatives Essmann and Art Wittich were appointed to hold House committee chairmanships.  In doing this, the Speaker passed over ranking House members.  The explanation of extensive experience rings hollow when one considers that Rep. Art Wittich has never chaired a committee. Conveniently, the makeup of a number of committees – those that are likely to receive this session’s key bills – is not conducive to getting those bills to the House floor.

The Rules Committee continued where the committee assignments left off. The Speaker assigns bills to committees, where presumably he can rely on his appointed committees killing those bills that he does not like. There were discussions of requiring a 3/5 majority to override that assignment. This is important because once a “kill” committee tables a bill, it takes a 3/5 vote to bring it back to the House floor. Furthermore if a spending bill is passed on the House floor, it could still be stalled by a Speaker who refers it to the Appropriations Committee.  The new rules proposed requiring another 3/5 vote to overrule that move.

The reason that the first few days of the session are so important is because the Rules for each session must initially be approved by only a majority of the body. After the Rules are in place, it then takes a 3/5 vote to change them.

Many felt that between the carefully-controlled Committee assignments and the more stringent Rule proposals, the Speaker was in effect being given a “pocket veto” – meaning that he would have the sole authority to stop any bill he didn’t like, and it would take 3/5 of the body to overturn him.

This combination of power placed squarely in one person did not sit very well with many Montanans or with many legislators. This doesn’t have anything to do with who the Speaker is – it has to do with a sense of fair play and representative democracy. Surprisingly, many of our legislators with a Constitutional bent and distrust in government did not have a problem with these proposals, at least not this session with a “conservative” majority.  For some it seems that the end justifies the means.

Luckily there was a significant group of legislators in the middle that would not stand for this. The Speaker learned of this prior to the floor vote.  While there were several Republican member proposals to mitigate the impact of the leadership proposed rules, the Republican leadership instead chose to accept the minority proposals.

The result was well covered in the press. Each party effectively has the opportunity to require a simple majority to move six bills to the House floor for a full vote this session.  Thus the term “silver bullet”. It does not allow unlimited motions that could be disruptive. It does allow the most important legislation of the session to be voted on in the full sunshine of the House floor.

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