Thoughts on the ‘End Game’

The arrival of April means we’re heading into the final furious weeks of the 2011 Legislature.

While this session has already been about as contentious as anyone could imagine, I suspect the final weeks could turn the dial up even more as majority Republicans begin to implement whatever strategy they have for getting their major budget and policy priorities past Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s “veto brand.”

chessThere are plenty of rumors about the GOP strategy floating around the Capitol these days. One is that Republican leadership will try to get the budget bill out of conference committee early next week and get it to the governor’s desk by Friday, April 8. At that point, so the rumor goes, the Legislature will temporarily recess until after the governor either signs or vetoes House Bill 2. That would allow them to bank legislative days in the event that Schweitzer vetoes the bill. That way they could reconvene and address HB2 without having to come back for a special session, thus facing the wrath of voters whose patience for lawmaking grows thinner as the days grow longer.

But the rumored recess doesn’t necessarily solve the Legislature’s problem with the governor. Sooner or later they have to make a deal with the the lame duck with the veto pen.

And that brings me to the point of this post.

Republicans have taken a hard-line on the budget and other policy priorities. Still riding high on the “mandate” they say voters handed them in November to cut government spending. So far they don’t seem willing to back down and acquiesce to Schweitzer’s demand that they fully fund his human services and education budgets.

But does a body of 150 individual voices have the juice or experience or political savvy to beat Schweitzer at a game he has mastered?

I had a lengthy conversation with a Capitol insider and trusted source about the looming battle. It was a background conversation and not for attribution. But with the source’s permission, I thought I’d share some of the insight on Lowdown.  I can’t tell you the source’s name, but I can tell you this source has broad legislative experience and a background in politics. I think the analysis is sound, but since you don’t know the source you should take what follows with a grain of salt, of course…

Lowdown: Are the Republicans betting that they have public opinion on their side when it comes down to a budget battle with the governor?

anonapunditAnonapundit: The bottom-line problem any legislative body has when they find themselves at odds with a governor—either on policy, politics, public relations, or a healthy mix of all three—is that it is impossible for a consensus to rise above the din of 150+ policy makers to challenge an individual voice who has staff in tow, a disciplined spokesperson, and typically an entire executive branch of career employees who must, at the very least, give a bold public face to the policy agenda of the governor. This is the institutional disadvantage of the legislative branch nationally, with public opinion polls always showing a legislature well below their counterpart governor regardless of party affiliation (save for a major scandal at the Blagojevich level). (Republican Gov.) Scott Walker in Wisconsin might yet prove to be a new paradigm, but overall this principle holds. 

Lowdown: Given that paradigm, how do you handicap these particular sparring partners: The GOP-Controlled Legislature and the powerful Democratic Governor?

Anonapundit: Regardless of one’s take on Brian Schweitzer as Montana Governor, only his most ardent detractors would argue that he is not a strong governor. This is not a policy position or a scorecard on the administration’s record, but rather a reflection that he is always on offense and has a a finger on the pulse of both state and national public opinion. Add to this the fact that Schweitzer is heading into the second half of a decade in this gig—with most of key staff and department heads in place—and you have a comfort level with process and policy that the legislature simply cannot match. On the surface the numbers from the election would seem daunting: 68-32 in the House, and as a special affront, a Republican representative in Butte, America of all places! The somewhat chagrined chief executive of the federal government called his much lesser loss a “shellacking.” Yet the Governor has negotiated as though he has all the cards, with it remaining to be seen if this is bluff, buster, confidence, or a end game plan that is well thought out.

Lowdown: So what about 150 lawmakers occupying the red corner?

Anonapundit:  Newly elected legislators who received a couple of thousand votes (38 newbies in the House alone) may have driven to Helena secure in the knowledge that they have a mandate to implement what their core supporters have as an interest, whether driven by local concerns, national issues, or political and media narratives, but this needs to be considered within a state-wide policy context. To be fair, the aforementioned context of public opinion towards state legislative service is a bit unfair. Most “citizen” legislators run and serve because they want to make a positive difference in their districts. Their gig involves long hours at low pay  in a stressful situation that puts additional pressure on their main jobs and families back home,  with the cynicism of the public at the end of the day for their efforts. That said, people watching the legislative show have plenty of examples of bills, debate, and dialogue to take issue with. Hunting with spears and/or a silencer on a FWP license that you purchased in gold coins (assuming the agency hasn’t been eliminated) might well be hyperbole, but not by much of a stretch. Once again, the legislative branch is not a disciplined machine. It has never been pretty, but if you get elected you get to have your say. What remains to be seen is whether or not legislative leadership has their own end game plan that will match or perhaps surpass the purported institutional advantage of the executive.

So there you have it. Of course we’ll all have to wait and see what happens from here on out, but I think it’s safe to say that the biggest fireworks are usually saved for the end of the show.