Montana Voices: Legislature is proof common folk can run the government

By Jim Elliott

The 65th Montana legislative session is over and 150 citizen legislators will be returning to the life they had before the session began last January – sort of. It is “sort of” because, whatever they do in real life, they will be constantly thinking of issues they considered in the legislative session and, one hopes, also continuously acting in the best interests of the people they represent.

Jim Elliott

If power is addicting, then part of the reason is that learning is addictive, and in the Legislature you can indeed learn. Very little is simple, and the more you understand that is the case, the more you want to know, and it is this curiosity that yields great legislators.

Legislators gain expertise in topics that have little practical application outside of government because they do not really exist outside of government, and legislators come to realize that they have become some of the very few people who understand how some complex issues works.

Curiously, two of the most important jobs in society do not require previous experience, raising kids and being a legislator. It’s all on-the-job training.

When term limits were voted in by Montana voters in the 1990s there was much wringing of hands by people who had already served many years in the Legislature; institutional knowledge will be lost, greenhorns will be running the show, all power will be in the hands of the lobbyists, etc.

I admit that I was also of this opinion, which was in some ways right and in others wrong. One of the ways in which it was wrong is that it short-changed the ability of people to rise to great accomplishments in a short period of time, and that ability is what makes a citizen-legislature work.

Don’t assume from that statement that I think term limits was a good idea; it wasn’t. It took a lot of legislators who had been there a long time out of office only to be replaced by new legislators who would be there for a long time, because after the eight-year limit of service in the House, they could run for the Senate and vice-versa.

But this article is not about the merits of term limits; it is about the extraordinary ability of ordinary people to run something as complex as government. And government is complex, have no doubts about that. It is like a nightmare machine that can react in totally unanticipated and consequential ways in totally unanticipated places to a small tweak here or there.

Former Republican state Sen. George McCallum once told me, “When you are first elected you wonder how you got there, and once you are in office you wonder how other people got there.” He meant that not every elected legislator is smart. Intelligence is not necessarily a requirement, as has been proven time and time again.

So, there are people who are not deep thinkers who listen and vote, but for each of these there are people whose ability to learn and understand is phenomenal, and these are the ones that, regardless of party, we need to be grateful for.

I have watched as people who had over 30 years of experience in government budgeting left the Legislature being replace by others with only four years of experience who were able to rise to the occasion and get the job done. I have been able to experience the feeling of “how will they get along without me and my knowledge” being replaced with the realization that they do just fine.

So, regardless of how we view what the Legislature did, we should be impressed that people not unlike us were able to rise to the occasion to keep government working. Thanks to them all.

Jim Elliott is a former Democratic state legislator from Trout Creek.