Absolute power is worth nothing if you don’t know how to use it. It’s knowledge that creates power. And in Helena, you’d be surprised at who has the knowledge.
As I sit in my office, I see the lobbyists coming and going on their way to the Capitol building. They meet with Legislators, they brief staff, and the work with other lobbyists to plan the fate of bills and resolutions.
The faces of the lobbyists walking by are familiar to me. We’ve been working together for many years. Sometimes we’re on the same side of an issue. Sometimes we’re at loggerheads. Here’s what I can tell you about each one of these veteran lobbyists: they know their issues inside and out – and not just their issues. They know the process, the players, the rules and obscure strategies that have worked in the past. That’s because they’ve been here forever. Although new ones start every session, most lobbyists have been involved in the Legislative process for years, or even decades. That’s how they become experts. They work the same issues and policies year in and year out, and eventually everyone trusts them – which is one of the unintended consequences of term limits. While lobbyists are gaining expertise over decades, no legislator stays in the same chamber for even one decade.
Here in Montana, we have a citizen legislature. It meets only 90 days every other year. They don’t get paid to work 40 hour weeks, they don’t have staff helping out when the session’s over, and in the House of Representatives, most don’t even have their own offices. That means they have to have their own full time job. Our Legislators are farmers, teachers, homemakers, or salesmen who set aside their own livelihood for a few months in order to come to Helena to make laws. But when it comes to expertise on the issues, they’re caught in a bind. A salesman who studies an issue for 3 months can’t hope to know more than a lobbyist who has been working that issue for 30 years. That’s why I feel so strongly about the Montana Family Foundation having a presence here. In a world where lobbyists have all the knowledge, Montana families must have their share of the institutional memory as well.
If we just sit back and hope that our representatives will know the right thing to do, we can never hope to match the lobbyists who use their years of experience to push for abortion, or same-sex marriage, or worse. Only by having our own people who work just as long and just as hard can we be assured that our issues get a fair hearing. The goal of term limits was to keep those in government from getting stale and losing touch with the people. But like most laws, this one had an unintended consequence. It created a separate class, not quite the government but certainly not the private sector – a class who dominates the process and who knows the law like the back of their hands.
None of us have all the answers. I don’t know how to strike a balance between the importance of term limits and the problem of lobbyists knowing so much more than Legislators. But I do know this: knowledge is power, and the more we can share information with Montana families, the more powerful they will become.