A quick glance through the Montana Senate hearing schedule shows a huge amount of time dedicated to hearings to confirm the governor’s appointments to agencies, boards and departments. It’s time-consuming, but it’s one of the most important roles the Senate plays. And it’s a direct check on the executive branch’s power. The interesting thing is it’s not interesting at all. Nominee after nominee comes before the Senate, and almost without exception, they’re vetted and approved in a seamless process. And that’s how it should be. The governor should be able to surround himself with those he chooses. And seriously, how controversial can an appointment to the state’s Milk Board, Hail Insurance Board or Historical Society Board be?
It used to be that way with the office of the Commissioner of Political Practices; that is, until the past two governors began making highly partisan political appointments, so partisan, in fact, that the Senate failed to confirm three appointments in a row. That, along with a series of Federal lawsuits, which excoriated the current Commissioner of Political Practices for acting as judge, jury and executioner, and you have the impetus for the current move to disband the office and divide its duties up between two other agencies. Montana’s the only state in the nation where the Commissioner of Political Practices gets to file complaints, investigate complaints, issue a ruling and levy a fine; in short, acting as judge, jury and executioner.
The issue came to a head this week when the Montana House of Representatives debated and passed House Bill 340, a bill to disband the Office of Political Practices and divide its duties between the Secretary of State and the Attorney General. The vote, which mainly fell along party lines, with all Democrats voting “no,” and nearly all Republicans voting “yes,” was largely symbolic. The bill may even pass the Senate, but in the end it’s sure to be vetoed by the Governor. In the meantime, it gives Republicans a chance to put the current commissioner on the hot seat and force him to answer the tough questions. By all appearances, Republicans will ride this horse as far as they can. When this bill dies, they’ll jump on a new horse named House Bill 406, which would prevent a Commissioner of Political Practices whose term is ended from being re-hired by the office for a period of six years.
Rumors circulating around the Capitol say that the plan now is for Governor Bullock to nominate Jamie McNaughton, the current Number Two in the department, to replace current Commissioner Jonathan Motl, who would then be re-hired by McNaughton to act as her Number Two, resulting in no change in the office at all. Republicans call this “hyper-partisanship,” and have vowed to put an end to it. The problem is the Governor still holds the veto pen, and both bills are as good as dead.
The second bill will give Republicans the chance to ask Motl publically if the rumor is really the plan. And maybe in the end, that’s all it’s meant to do. Regardless of the outcome, what is evident is that the current system requires the Governor to appoint political moderates for the system to work, and until they do, hyper-partisanship will be the order of the day.