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Politics trumps government in legislature's latest drama

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Last Friday's session of the Montana Senate was maybe the weirdest day in the history of this state's legislature. In order to comprehend what happened, you will need to understand an extremely boring parliamentary procedure known as a "call of the Senate." I apologize for the explanation in advance. Parliamentary procedure is to politics as the instructions on a box of condoms are to sex. The reading will be worth it, though, because on Friday afternoon Senate Democrats pulled condoms over their heads and fell out the bedroom window.

The explanation: When the Senate is in session and a quorum is present, any five senators can order a call of the Senate. From that moment, all business is suspended until each member of the Senate is present in the chamber. The sergeant-at-arms and law enforcement officials are empowered to round up any missing senators; once they do, roll is taken and business can continue.

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Democrats tried to order a call of the Senate on Friday afternoon. They did so in an attempt to block passage of Senate Bills 405 and 408 (more on those in a moment). Friday was the transmittal deadline for those bills, which means they would likely die if they were not passed by the end of the day.

Lacking the numbers to simply vote down SB 405 and SB 408, Democrats concocted a genius plan. They sent Sen. Shannon Augare home to Browning, where he would hide while Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D—Butte, ordered a call of the Senate. That would suspend business until the transmittal deadline for the bills had passed.

The plan failed spectacularly. Instead of ordering the call of the Senate first thing and explaining to their caucus what was happening during the ensuing hours of paralysis, Senate Democrats held a party caucus to tell one another what they were doing before they did it. When the session reconvened, Senate President Jeff Essman, R—Billings, refused to recognize Sesso, preventing him from ordering a call of the Senate.

If Democrats had shown themselves willing to exploit parliamentary procedure, Republicans were ready to ignore it entirely. Essman moved right on to final votes on SB 405 and SB 408. Both passed 28-0, as angry Democrats—listed "absent" in the final vote tally—pounded and eventually stood on their desks.

And what do these important new bills do? What business was so controversial that Democrats were willing to shut down the Senate to stop it, and so crucial that Republicans were willing to ignore the rules of the legislature to pass it?

SB 405 and SB 408 are ballot initiatives. The first would eliminate same-day voter registration. The second would restructure the state's primary system so that the two candidates who got the most votes in the primaries would appear on the general-election ballot, regardless of party affiliation.

Both measures would be catastrophic for Democrats if voters approved them. The loss of same-day registration would reduce voting by students and the elderly. A top-two primary system would keep libertarians and other third-party candidates who draw votes away from Republicans off the ballot. In some districts, it would prevent Democratic candidates from appearing on the ballot at all.

On Friday, Republicans abandoned Senate procedure to ram through one bill making it harder to vote and another one reducing the number of people Montanans could vote for. Meanwhile, Democrats attempted to paralyze said Senate and then started a small, polite riot, all to prevent Montanans from eventually voting on either measure.

It was a stunning triumph of politics over government. In a legislative session that has seen Republicans refuse free Medicaid money from Washington, D.C., submit bills nullifying federal regulations that don't exist yet and propose public corporal punishment for misdemeanors, Friday's literal refusal to recognize that Democratic senators exist took the cake.

In a session that has found Democrats unable to get a property tax rebate out of committee, unwilling to compromise with the majority to implement the governor's agenda and unequipped to even address Montana's medical marijuana mess, Friday's botched parliamentary maneuver tried to snatch a bite of that cake and wound up jamming a fork deep into the party's eye.

And in a legislative season that has seen Helena ignore real and pressing issues to pursue political gamesmanship, Friday's session of the Senate burned down the kitchen, broke all the plates, held up a tangled clutch of scorched housewares to voters and said, "Look, I baked you a cake."

Regardless of who first did wrong in the Senate on Friday, the chamber ended in utter, rat-screw chaos. There was no government in Helena this week. There was only politics. For much of the 2013 session, Montana's elected representatives have ignored the duties of their offices to focus on how they might hold them again in 2015. After what I saw in the Senate on Friday, I'm starting to wonder why anyone would want to go back.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.

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