Long-time legislative watchers were left scratching their heads last week when Montana’s House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass House Bill 2, the major appropriations bill, despite the fact it did not contain funding for many of the minority Democrats’ priorities. For those whose districts are represented by Democrat legislators, the stunning lack of backbone leaves many wondering where this unprecedented tactic originated and what, exactly, it was supposed to accomplish.
As reported by the Missoulian State Bureau’s Mike Dennison, “the Montana House stunned observers Tuesday morning by endorsing the session’s major budget bill on a unanimous vote, with no amendments and virtually no debate – a historic departure from the usual days-long, partisan floor battle of sessions past … Republican and Democratic leaders said afterward they agreed shortly before the Tuesday morning session opened to move House Bill 2 through the chamber with no changes to show that the bulk of the proposed budget has solid, bipartisan support.”
Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said the unanimous vote was “sending a message that we could do it.” But for those who were counting on the Democrats to put up a fight to fund the issues on which most, if not all, Democrats campaigned, the message wasn’t very good news. In fact, it looked a lot more like appeasement and capitulation than any kind of winning political strategy for Democrats.
Here’s some of what got left out of the budget while House Democrats were singing Kumbaya with the majority Republicans. No aross-the-board pay raise for state employees, many of whom will now go into their fifth year of frozen wages. No money or method to deal with the impacts of the fracking boom in eastern Montana. And significantly – at least for a core Democratic constituency – no $4.6 million in federal funds for 25 family planning clinics and the 26,000 mostly low-income women who rely on the program.
Stacey Anderson, the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Montana, put it bluntly after watching the Democrats go quietly along with the budget without raising a single objection.
It was “incredibly disheartening,” Anderson told reporters, “and speaks to the back-door dealing that has dominated the budget process this session.” Her sentiments were echoed by her co-worker Lindsey Love, who told reporters, “I don’t think, before this morning, any of us knew that this sort of deal was going to take place.“
According to Democratic leaders, the funding remains “a top priority” and they say they’ll be “carrying their concerns to our colleagues in the Senate and hope that our concerns will be heard.” But here’s the rub – the Senate, like the House, is ruled by a Republican majority. Moreover, the Senate Republican leadership is vastly more conservative than the House leadership, having tossed the former Senate leaders out of their positions saying they were too moderate. Believing the Senate Republicans are going to somehow completely change their ideology and miraculously restore the funds seems like incredibly naive fantasy by the House Democrats. And as those who know the legislative process can attest, in the end, it is the Senate that controls the outcome of the final budget, not the House.
While the House Democrats are breaking their arms patting themselves on the back for their “bipartisanship,” it’s a little late for thinking through what message their bizarre behavior sends to those who voted for them. Would it be “you can’t trust Democrats to keep their campaign promises?” Or how about, “Democrats will sell you out with backroom deals.” Or maybe just a firm grasp of the obvious: “The Republicans got what they wanted and rolled the Democrats, who went down without a whimper.”
If and when the Senate fails to restore the funding for the Democrats’ “top priorities” what can they say when every single Democrat member of the House is on record as having endorsed this version of the budget with their votes?
The long-term consequences of the House Democrats’ ill-conceived move will likely play out in the future. Come next year, when those same Democrats are seeking re-election, how will they be able to ask their constituents for campaign contributions while promising “I’ll fight for you” given the fact that they had the chance to do so and didn’t? The reality of the Republican legislative majorities is inescapable. But tragically for Montanans, the Democrats seem to have simply forgotten how to fight.
George Ochenski writes a weekly column for the Missoulian’s Monday Opinion page. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.