Could the Montana House resemble the U.S. Senate in 2015?

The Montana House of Representatives on opening day of the 63rd legislative session. TRIBUNE PHOTO/LARRY BECKNER

The new dress code in the Montana House took social media by storm over the weekend, a far more significant proposed rule change has been more-or-less overlooked in recent days.

The House Rules Committee met last week and approved a handful of amendments to the House rules. One of the rule amendments would change the number of votes required to block the House leadership from referring bills to the House Appropriations Committee.

Under current rules it takes a simple majority vote to stop the speaker from sending a bill from the floor to the House Appropriations Committee, a procedural tactic used to kill a measure House leadership doesn’t want to pass. Under the proposed rule change it would take a three-fifths majority, or 60 votes, to block such an action.

Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said the rule change is merely an attempt to make the House rules more consistent.

“It’s more of a harmonizing with the rest of the rules,” Knudsen said in Monday’s Great Falls Tribune. “For every other committee referral by the speaker, it takes a three-fifths vote (to block the action). Only the appropriations committee requires a simple majority.”

This practical effect of the proposed change has far greater implications than Knudsen’s stated reasons for supporting it.

For instance, if this rule were in place last session then one of the most significant pieces of legislation to come out of the 2013 Legislature almost certainly would have died in committee.

Senate Bill 175, the bi-partisan measure that significantly changed the way Montana schools are funded, had broad support among Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, tho it wasn’t favored by Republican leadership and some Democrats.

On April 15, 2013,  just a handful of legislative days before the lawmakers adjourned sine die, the House voted 60-40 on second reading to  pass SB 175.

After second reading then-House Majority Leader Gordy Vance, R-Bozeman, rang the procedural death knell by making a motion to send SB 175 from the floor to House Appropriations.

The motion narrowly failed on a 51-49 vote, which kept SB 175 alive.  It cleared third reading in the House 58-41 and went on to easily pass the Senate and become law.

If the proposed rule change were in effect in 2013, its probable SB 175 would have died in committee, despite the fact that a majority of lawmakers in both houses supported it.

The new rule change would make it very difficult for even a bi-partisan majority of the body stop the speaker from dooming bills he doesn’t like. As Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Hunter pointed out: “In some degree these changes would diminish the rights of what may be a majority of members of the entire House.”

But the proposed rule change also irks Republicans who don’t march in lock-step with the leadership team.

Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad

Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, was among the 28 House Republicans in 2013 who voted against the Republican Majority Leader’s motion to send SB 175 to a committee death. Cook, in an article in the Great Falls Tribune, called the proposed rule change “the lemming law” and said its supporters are “drunk with power.”  According to Cook,  the rule change does not guarantee the success of the conservative leadership’s fiscal agenda, it only guarantees individual lawmakers will have fewer opportunities to influence that agenda.

Under the proposed rules, the Montana House could end up looking a lot like the U.S. Senate, where it takes 60-votes to pass any meaningful legislation.

“If you made your money in your general election talking about the vile behavior of (Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid, then why would you willingly succumb to the same sort of rules?” Cook said.

The full House is expected to vote on the new rules in early January after the 64th Montana Legislature convenes.