Editors Desk: Our Legislators Deserve Fair Criticism

Montana’s 63rd Legislature is being closely watched all across the state, and media outlets won’t turn away until the session has ended. Coverage ranges from calm appraisal to outrage and indignation. But during the chaos of conveying complex issues to an often ambivalent public, we sometimes resort to the easy road: attacking the Legislature and its officials.

Last week while researching an editorial for the Exponent that detailed the educational background of our Legislature, I found many legislators that I am proud to say make our laws. But I also came across legislators that didn’t seem prepared to coach Little League Baseball.

One legislator described herself as “educated in life,” another said he had no formal education but considered himself a “computer guru.” Yet another is using bigdogarmwrestling@yahoo.com as his professional email.

In the same editorial, we reported that 22 percent of Montana legislators don’t have a bachelor’s degree. That information hints that these legislators are not the cream of Montana’s crop. But that’s all it is, a hint. What really matters is the bills they draft and the decisions they make.

Although some may joke that our “citizen’s legislature” is just what one would expect from a rural state, we are not very different from other places across the United States. Nationally, about one in four state legislators don’t have a four-year degree. Even in New Jersey — a state legislature considered “professional” by most political scientists — only about 80 percent of legislators have a bachelor’s degree.

This is a debate going back to our nation’s roots. Should our government be an educated elite or a miniature version of our citizenry? In 1776, John Adams wrote that the representative body “should think, feel, reason and act” like the people at large. James Madison wrote that representatives should “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” That this question is still unanswered for Americans demonstrates that there are good arguments on both sides. In the end, there may be some value to having a blend of Ivy-League graduates and self-made businessmen in Helena.

This week, a bill was thrown into the spotlight that requires a woman under the age of 18 to notify her parents of an abortion. The bill, HB 391, is sponsored by Jerry Bennett, one of our legislators with no formal secondary education. Currently, in order to be constitutional, a young woman has the option of notifying a judge instead of her parents. However you feel about privacy rights, attempting to pass a bill that is unconstitutional at both the state and national level is a waste of taxpayer money. Bennett acknowledges his bill is unconstitutional, but remains firm in his desire to pass it.

While this type of negligence is frustrating to see at the state level, the behavior is inherent in a “citizen’s legislature.” Newspapers, blogs and citizens should remember that resorting to personal attacks on our legislators can only go so far. If not the person, we should respect the dignity of the office.

Banter in the form of entertainment, such as this week’s political cartoon (on page 8) referencing the aforementioned bill, has its place. The real obstacle to helping implement positive political change is mindless personal attacks in the guise of real criticism. As the Exponent’s opinion editor this semester, I see it as my job to separate the two for you, our reader.

  • Matt– Thank you for your commentary on our state’s representatives. I am often the individual complaining about our legislators’ incompetencies. Often I feel my critiques are justified but I’ll admit that occasionally they’re mindless rants. I appreciate your efforts to create an opinion section that is critical while also being thoughtful and informed.