How this work – and what it means
Today, Montana’s new and returning legislators will convene for the first time to get some training, meet as R and D caucuses, and vote for leadership.
In the 2015 session there are a number of candidates vying for these offices. Usually those who are seeking to become the leaders of a chamber reach out to members of their caucus to run for the office. You’ll also often see those seeking leadership positions attempting to position themselves in the press or social media as leaders – or as attack dogs on the Governor or opposing party.
Today, the Rs will meet on the third floor to “caucus,” while D’s meet on the first. Then the leadership selection process will begin. Until leaders are chosen, the person of each caucus with the most seniority traditionally leads the caucus meeting and leadership selection to make it fair if leadership positions are contested.
Then those running for leadership need to be nominated and seconded for Speaker of the House or Senate president. The nominators and seconders both must give a speech telling their fellow lawmakers why those they are supporting should be their leaders. After that the candidates for Senate President and Speaker of the House give their own speeches.
Interestingly, members of the caucuses still vote by secret ballot and often the ballot count is never revealed and only known by counters, who must ensure the leader gets at least 50% of the vote or set up a run off. I’m wondering whether this secrecy is actually allowed given MT open record laws and that caucuses are public meetings in Montana. Legislators’ other votes are public too.
Leadership positions are very important because leadership of each body not only sets the tone of the session but, in the House, the leader is solely responsible for choosing committee chairs and committee members. Also, it is the Senate President and the House Speaker who in the final days of the session will negotiate a budget with Governor Bullock. Don’t let anyone tell you that someone wacky is the best fit for these jobs. The budget and the committee makeup is too important. It needs to be someone who can work with both sides or nothing will be accomplished. If the house alienates itself too much from the senate and the executive branch – either through leadership choices or committees or both — then it’s members may find themselves outside the loop and not involved when it comes to key negotiations, decisions, and bill passage.
Senate President: In the Senate, the to position is the Senate President and she or he will effectively be chosen today by the Republicans as the majority party in that body, although there is an official confirmation vote on the first day of the session to elect this person.
In the Senate, unlike in the House, a “Committee on Committees” will be elected today to choose who will serve on each senate committee. This means senate Committee Chairs and membership will not be announced prior to the session beginning in January. The Committee on Committees will likely have Rs and Ds both.
Speaker of the House
Speaker of the House is the leader of the House, and is chosen like the Senate President, with an official vote of the full House on day one of the 2015 session. Because the four positions I just mentioned get voted on by the full membership of each body, depending on how this plays out and who is running, dems could play a role in the selection of the top two leadership positions of each body.
In the House, the Speaker of the House personally chooses the committee leadership for every house committee. For this reason, it is not likely that the committee chairs and membership will be announced today either.
Senate Pro-Tem and House Pro-Tem
Each body will also elect a Pro-Tem – basically a number two to the Senate President and Speaker. The duties of this position are pretty much whatever they President and Senate want them to be – these two jobs get an official vote of the full house and senate on the first day of the session too.
Majority and Minority Leaders and Whips
Both the senate and the house each get a majority leader and a minority leader whose jobs it will be to serve as spokespeople for their parties during floor sessions (making objections, asking questions, etc). Each caucus will also have whip positions who are supposed to “whip” their caucuses into voting together. Only the caucuses vote for these positions, not the full house and senate.
The house and the senate operate independently even if they are controlled by the same party – and the chambers do not always agree. Typically near the end of the session it is the President and Speaker that complete the final budget negotiations with the Governor, this is why these roles are so important and why it is important that rational individuals and moderate Republicans are in these posts.
Each chamber functions under its own rules that are adopted by the bodies on the first day of session. While many of the rules are the same in each body there are some significant differences. There are also partisan differences in each body. Not only has the house traditionally been more partisan and fractious than the senate, but word on the street is that the Senate’s moderating power will be greater this time because some of the most right-wing senators have moved over to the house.
These changes, plus the natural differences and division between the two bodies traditionally, provide use some clues about how the fault lines of the 2015 session will reveal themselves.
Additionally, it is important to remember that the GOP does not have a veto-proof majority and so will need to work with Governor Bullock in order to accomplish anything.
Committee Membership Selection
In the House, the Speaker appoints all committee’s membership and determines who is to chair each. This gives the Speaker of the House a lot of power – power which has often been used to appoint imbeciles as chairs of key house committees.
There are several rumors circulating about who will run for leadership in the House. For the R’s, Austin Knudson, Steve Fitzpatrick and Ron Ehli are both said to be running for something. For the D’s Chuck Hunter, Pat Noonan, Bryce Bennett, Ellie Hill.
In the senate, those rumored to be running include Debby Barrett, Scott Sales, Mark Blasdel, Fred Thomas (architect of two of the worst MT laws – deregulation and term limits), and Jennifer Fielder (who has militia ties) are both said to be seeking some position. This is frightening. The GOP lacks women in both houses, and we will likely see some tokenism in play here to make it seem otherwise. For the dems Jon Sesso is among the names being discussed for Minority Leader.