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Divided government isn’t always a bad thing

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Divided government isn’t always a bad thing

Feb 28, 2024 | 6:51 am ET
By Dave Lewis
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Divided government isn’t always a bad thing
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The dome of the Montana Capitol, with the statue of Mike and Maureen Mansfield in the lower center (By Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

I spent nearly 50 years in Montana state government working for four governors and 14 years in the Legislature.  I finished with a term as a lobbyist just to have one last taste of the fun in the capitol.  I learned a lot of hard lessons.

One of the Democrat governors I worked for told me to hope and pray we did not end up with Democrat control of the Legislature and one of the Republican Governors I worked for dreaded a Republican controlled Legislature.  Single-party control leads to extreme bills passing which are not good for anyone. 

In my experience as a budget director for three governors, I always feared extreme solutions in any form.  The best course for government is to find the consensus solution. Extreme solutions are not good for the state. The role of the Legislature is to take the sharp edges off bills as they work through the process.

Single-party control means that too many bills pass because if a party caucus supports a bill in one house, it invariably passes the second house. A caucus that kills the other house bills from their party caucus will get the same treatment for their bills in the second house. That leads to the governor having to make too many vetoes. Unpleasant for all involved. The need to compromise is reduced. And compromise is what makes good legislation.

When I was trying to pass a budget, I always sought out the moderate voices in the Senate. Budget bills start in the House and are disposed of in the Senate. House moderates have to give the hard liners in the House some red meat to get a bill passed and moderates in the Senate try to smooth the edges. It works. It works best if the Republicans control the House and Democrats control the Senate but smart leaders can make it work if the is not the case.

I got my education in real politics from Tom Zook in 2003. I was serving as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and Sen. Tom Zook was chairman of Senate Finance and Claims. We had finished our conference committee on the budget bill and there were several items that the House Republican Caucus wanted in the bill. I was told to meet with the Senate members and make it clear that the House would not accept any bill that did not include those changes. I went to Zook’s office and laid out the issues and the message from the House leadership. 

Tom looked at me, smiled and said: You know who has the cards here don’t you?  

I replied, yes. I know the classic play at this point is for the Senate to adjourn and tell the House to take it or leave it. 

“But sir, the House has some bills the Senate wants that would die in that case,” I said.   

Zook smiled and said what we have in the budget bill is more important than our bills. 

“As I said, take it or leave it,” Zook said.

I stood up on the House floor and moved to approve the conference committee report and explained it by saying Zook has better cards than I have. 

The House approved the motion and adjourned. 

Strong leaders in the right places can make the system work. 

I know how it works in the Montana Legislature and suspect it works the same way in Washington D.C.