Last week, state Rep. Jerry O'Neill, a Republican from Columbia Falls, wrote a letter to Montana Legislative Services asking to be paid his public salary in pure gold. He definitely did not do it for attention. Like many adults invested with the power to make laws, O'Neill is merely concerned that U.S. currency will soon become worthless.
"It is very likely the bottom will fall out from under the U.S. dollar," he wrote. "Only so many dollars can be printed before they have no value."
He is also worried that paper money may not be legal. In an interview with Politico, O'Neill cited Article I, Sec. 10 of the Constitution, which prohibits states from making "anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts."
I don't know how closely you follow current events, but here is where I point out that Montana no longer mints its own currency. The problem of individual states printing paper money whose value was prone to market-rending fluctuations pretty much vanished after the Civil War, as you might remember from learning elementary concepts of modern governance as a child.
While we are in the realm of conjecture, I might also guess that O'Neill uses U.S. dollars in his day-to-day life. I have no way of knowing, but I bet he does not appear at the grocery store with a saucepan full of gold like a damn leprechaun. Maybe, just possibly, his request to be paid in American Eagle coins—not at their face value of $50, but at their market value of approximately $1,800 per—is a symbolic gesture.
O'Neill has built his legislative career on such gestures. Back in 2003, he sponsored a bill in the Montana Senate to repeal the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct election of U.S. senators. Previously—and "previously" here means "before 1913"—U.S. senators were appointed by their state's legislatures, in what was either a ready instrument of big-business corruption or a bulwark for state's rights, depending on whether you asked a farmer or the owner of a copper mine.
O'Neill's proposal to return us to those heady days passed the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee but failed before the larger body. That's probably just as well, since—back to high school civics, here—state senates are not currently allowed to amend the U.S. Constitution. The functional and political impossibility of his proposal did not deter him, however, and O'Neill resubmitted his legislation in 2005.
"Not willing to give up on the principle, in the 2005 Montana legislative session, I introduced Senate Bill 464 to allow legislative caucuses to nominate candidates for the U.S. Senate," he said. "I wasn't even able to get SB 464 out of the Senate Judiciary Committee."
That's from his response to a 2010 Tea Party questionnaire, in which O'Neill touts his record of using his position in the state legislature to unsuccessfully propose imaginary changes to the federal government. The operative phrases here are "not willing to give up on principle" and "Tea Party." Like the imaginary party that failed to return America to Constitutional fundamentalism, O'Neill has committed himself to bold politics that accomplish nothing at all.
It is fitting that O'Neill would start negotiating his 2013 compensation a week after winning his 2012 campaign, since he has concerned himself so little with doing the people's business. Why shouldn't we agree to pay him in gold for work he hasn't done yet? His role in the legislature seems purely symbolic—why not pay him in a currency that befits his performance?
We could probably think of something even more appropriate than gold. Each month, the state of Montana could pay O'Neill in children's laughter, and if he does a really good job we could give him a bonus in the form of the scent of a woman's hair.
Or we could insist that he govern the actual state. Montana has chosen its representatives to the federal government, and O'Neill is not one of them. We have identified several problems facing the million-odd people in Big Sky Country, and the illegitimacy of paper money is not on the list. Neither do we face a shortage of libertarian blowhards, nor legislators willing to waste the state's time—and gold—with pious declarations of their own orthodoxy.
What we could use are some lawmakers who understand that the state's practical concerns transcend the theoretical. Last year, O'Neill voted against repealing Montana's medical marijuana law, in a rare acknowledgement that economic and demographic realities might trump 18th-century political science.
I would like to see more of that. I am worried less about the collapse of dollars into worthless paper and more about the collapse of politics into empty theater. I pay Jerry O'Neill's salary, and I care more about his actions than how the props read onstage.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.