The Montana Legislature meets for only 90 days every two years and in those few short weeks likely will work on over 4000 pieces of legislation. In order to get through that mountain of work, our legislature uses the same tools legislative bodies and parliaments around the world use: committees and caucuses.
Both the Senate and House of Representatives use Committees and subcommittees to divide the workload. Committees’ authority comes from the Leadership in the House or Senate, a top-down power structure. The Leaders determine which legislators will serve on each committee, who will serve as the Committee Chair and control the Committee’s workflow, and which bills will be assigned to each committee. The Montana Constitution guarantees citizens the right to participate in government decisions, and Committees hold public hearings where citizens can testify on legislation.
Administrative Committees were established by state law to manage the administrative functions, such as audit and finance issues, for the legislature. Interim Committees work between legislative sessions and study specific issues and consider whether to recommend new legislation. Standing Committees, or Session Committees, are established each session in the rules adopted for each house of the Legislature. Standing committees review, analyze, and amend proposed legislation, then vote to recommend or disapprove passage of bills. Committees typically have members from both major parties, with the Chair of the Committee being of the majority party and the Vice-Chair from the minority party. In this Legislature, most Committees have a chair and vice-chair from the majority party and an additional vice-chair from the minority party. Some committees only have Chairs and vice-chairs from the majority party.
A caucus’s power is from the bottom, up - legislators form and join caucuses to unite and promote an agreed-upon cause. That cause may cross-over multiple Committee assignments, may cross-over party lines, and may cross between the Senate and House.
Political parties are large caucuses. Their members share common perspectives on the role of government and members vote together to advance that perspective. Smaller groups of legislators may form caucuses that advocate for their region of the country or state, support shared economic interests such as agriculture or heavy industry, or reflect their ethnic or cultural heritage, such as the American Indian Caucus. Depending on the important issues of the day, caucuses may come-and-go or shift their focus to represent current perspectives.
A caucus helps legislators with their work to write and pass legislation. Caucuses are a source of allies who can co-sponsor bills, help guide those bills through the committee voting process, and vote for the bill in the full House or Senate. The authority comes from the collective voice of its members and amplifies a legislator’s individual voice. Recently, the American Indian Caucus in the Montana legislature condemned a draft resolution they considered an attack on Indigenous Peoples. Because the condemnation came from a group of legislators working as a caucus, rather than an individual legislator, it carried more authority in the press and with the public. The resolution’s sponsor withdrew the resolution from consideration after hearing from the caucus.
Because caucuses bring together people with a shared interest, they foster trust among their members. When members trust each other, they can rely on information on proposed bills and voting recommendations from their fellow caucus members. Legislators can’t be experts on every issue in every bill; caucuses allow members to seek guidance from fellow members who are experts.
The writers of our federal Constitution were deeply concerned that caucuses, or “factions” as they called them, would tear apart the young republic. They feared small, united factions could derail legislative work and promote partisan or self-interest above the public interest. The recent election of the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the federal level illustrated how it is possible for a small faction to influence the outcome. We shall see if this outcome is in the public interest.
The League of Women Voters has been registering voters and providing non-partisan voting information for over 100 years. Membership is open to men and women, citizens and non-citizens over the age of 16. For more information about the Missoula League, go to our website: lwvmissoula.org
Nancy Leifer is President of the League of Women Voters of Montana and Nancy Maxson is Past-President of the League of Women Voters of Missoula