Some might think watching George Bush tumble down the rabbit hole of horrors he has created in the Middle East would have given a clue to Republicans about the questionable wisdom of couching all things political in terms of war. But those awaiting the Great Awakening on the R side of the aisle had best practice patience. The first pronouncement out of the mouth of Rep. Scott Sales, the new Republican Speaker of the House was: “It’s a war.”
No, he’s not talking about the Middle East, Iraq or Afghanistan here, and he’s not talking about the Taliban or Baghdad’s Islamists. He’s talking about the Montana Legislature. You know, that predominately white, male, Christian group of people that voters send to Helena every two years to try to hammer out a budget, develop sensible policies for the future and safeguard our interests here in the Big Sky State.
So who are the Republicans so hot to go to war with now? Why the Democrats, of course. Their fellow Montanans, who managed to eke out a tiny majority in the Senate and who lost their potential majority in the House when Tuesday’s recount tipped the scales to the Republicans.
And why are they going to war? Well, that’s not entirely clear. In fact, it’s downright confusing when you read what Republican leaders actually had to say.
Cory Stapleton, the hyper-aggressive senator from Billings who was just elected by his party as the Senate’s Minority Leader, accused Democrats of having cast “a stain across the Senate.” Apparently, the “stain” to which Stapleton is referring involves two instances. The first—and the one that drove Stapleton into his foaming-at-the-mouth Pomeranian mode—was the party switch by formerly Republican Sen. Sam Kitzenberg. His decision to become a Democrat for the last two years of his Senate term gave the majority to the Democrats.
Stapleton is convinced that Kitzenberg was bought off by Gov. Brian Schweitzer because he took an unadvertised, temporary job with the Department of Revenue—and perhaps he was. But it would take a considerable stretch of the imagination to believe Schweitzer could have guessed the outcome of the elections so far in advance that he’d offer a job to Kitzenberg in return for changing parties to tip the balance. It’s even tougher to believe that the blustering Schweitzer ever contemplated that his popularity might not translate into Democrats handily taking both houses of the Legislature.
The second instance of such concern to Sen. Stapleton is the newly elected President of the Senate, Mike Cooney, who also took an unadvertised, temporary position with a state agency this year. Those who know Mike Cooney will tell you he is anything but a warrior. The former Secretary of State is a rather milquetoast politician, steeped in the political history of the state and, on most issues, seeks working compromise and middle ground.
But that’s not good enough for Stapleton, who has already fired off letters to his fellow senators requesting that Cooney not be appointed to any committees that oversee state spending, apparently because he’s worried that Cooney will somehow add money to the budget to cover his position, or some such nonsense. For what it’s worth, Stapleton has also requested that Kitzenberg not be appointed to the Taxation Committee, although that particular committee has virtually nothing to do with state spending unless it’s giving tax breaks to corporate special interests—which, by the way, is a project at which Republicans, not Democrats, have excelled.
Meanwhile, over in the House, Speaker Sales says he and his fellow Republicans will aggressively promote what they’re calling the “Republican principles” of smaller government and less public spending. For some unknown reason they apparently haven’t noticed that the Republican-controlled White House and Congress have created trillions in deficit spending in their recent years in power, while massively expanding both the size and intrusive power of government. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the same thing happened when Republicans were in charge of Montana. They grew government and spent big—it’s just that they spent primarily on pet projects like corporate tax breaks and coal mines, not on such piddly concerns as education or health care.
For their part, the Democrats provide a startling contrast to the rather vicious attitude being thrown at them from the other side of the aisle. John Parker has been elected Minority Leader of the House and is considered a moderate Democrat. Even more telling is the election of two Democratic women to leadership positions. Missoula’s Carol Williams makes Montana history as the first woman Majority Leader in the Senate, while over in the House Margie Campbell, an American Indian from Poplar, was elected Minority Whip. The difference between the political parties on gender is clear as a bell.
What the split Legislature will do, however, is create significant problems for Schweitzer’s mid-term agenda. Unfortunately, the Republicans have indicated they are likely to back Schweitzer’s massive coal development plans—which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But there’s little doubt the House Republicans have the votes to kill any other bill the Senate sends them. Plus, the budget always starts in the House Appropriations Committee, where it stays for most of the session. By the time it reaches the Senate, Schweitzer’s grand budget plan may be unrecognizable. While the governor can threaten legislators with his veto power, intimidation between independent branches of government tends to engender resistance more than foster cooperation.
What squabbling will arise should rightfully be over how and where the state’s significant budget surplus is applied to best meet the needs of Montanans—not political parties. The early threats of “war” by the Republican leaders are little more than a distraction from the real work at hand. The last thing we need, especially from the party that has started more wars than anyone in recent times and failed to win even one, is yet another ill-considered battle.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.