For all the attention paid to the elections and for all the angst they cause, it’s important to remember they’re just the run-up to the main event, the convening of Congress and our state legislature in January. That’s where simple angst can become wailing and gnashing of teeth, depending on whether your team won or lost on election night. Before we get there, however, we need to choose our team captains, and that happened on Monday at the Legislative Winter Caucuses. The caucuses are the first chance for newly-elected legislators from both parties to get together, meet each other and start to form the working relationships necessary to move their agendas forward. Arguably, the most important part of the caucuses is the selection of leadership, because it’s the leaders who set the agenda, the tone and the tenor in any legislative session.
The fact that the most important slots would be filled by Republicans was a given. Republicans won large majorities in the House and Senate. The real question was whether the leaders would be chosen from the liberal or conservative wings of the Republican party. It all began at 10:00 a.m., and the House quickly re-elected Austin Knudsen as the Speaker. Knudsen is a solid conservative legislator and a good choice for our side. Next comes the majority leader, very important because he sets the agenda and leads floor action. It was Representative Ron Ehli against Representative Kirk Wagoner, both solid conservatives. In the end, Ehli won, although either would have been fine, in our opinion. Rounding out the field was Representative Greg Hertz who ran unopposed for Speaker pro tempore.
On the Senate side, it was more of a nail-biter. When the dust settled, Scott Sales of Bozeman was elected Senate president. Senator Sales once served as Speaker of the House and is considered to be one of the most dependable conservatives in the Senate. As Yogi Berra would say, the race for Senate majority leader was “déjà vu all over again.” Senator Fred Thomas took that slot, and ironically, he’ll move back into his old office. Fred was the Senate majority leader back in 2003 when I was Speaker pro tempore in the House. He’s always been a rock-solid pro-family vote. That left the race between Senator Lew Jones and Senator Bob Keenan for President pro tempore. It came down to a tie vote, and Keenan won by a coin toss. Ironically, he also served as Senate president in 2003. Both Senator Keenan and Senator Thomas were term-limited, sat out the requisite eight years and then ran for re-election. They quickly moved back into leadership because of their experience, and both will serve our issues well.
All in all, it was a good day. Now we begin Phase 2, the selection of the committees. This will determine, to a large degree, the final outcome of the session. Unlike the Senate which chooses its committee members by committee, the Speaker of the House has sole discretion when it comes to committee assignments. This makes him extremely powerful. By this time next week, we should know who serves on which committees, especially the House and Senate judiciary committees where our team spends the majority of its time. The Judiciary committees debate the heavy-duty moral and ethical issues, like life, marriage, the 2nd Amendment and the death penalty. Getting the right members on the committees begins with getting the right people elected to leadership. Phase I complete, now it’s on to Phase 2!