Montana Senate
Credit: Eliza Anderson Wiley / MTFP

This story is excerpted from Capitolized, a twice-weekly newsletter that keeps an eye on the representatives you voted for (or against) with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday? Sign up here.

The Montana Legislature — really, American state and federal legislative bodies in general — operates according to a series of rules and traditions. 

Among these is that a center aisle bifurcates legislative chambers according to the country’s two major political parties. In theory, Republicans sit on one side of the chamber and Democrats sit on the other. In Montana, the size of the Republican supermajority and the limits of physical space mean this isn’t quite true — in the House, for example, Republicans sit on one side of the aisle and occupy about half of the seats on the other side of the aisle, while Democrats populate the remaining seats. 

But the basic principle of furniture tribalism still applies. Republicans sit with Republicans, Democrats sit with Democrats. 

It’s a principle that one lawmaker this session, backed by a variety of figures from deep in the annals of Montana’s political history, hopes to undo. 

House Bill 271, sponsored by Rep. Paul Tuss, D-Havre, would seat lawmakers in the state House and Senate alphabetically by last name, replacing the seating arrangements currently defined by party segregation and hashed out by legislative leadership with statutory direction. Tuss told the House Legislative Administration Committee last week that he believes breaking the partisan seating divide could help lawmakers broker more effective relationships with one another — and pass more effective legislation — regardless of whether “R” or “D” follows their name. 

“Though perhaps a little different than the other legislation we’re used to considering this session, I firmly believe this bill will make all other legislation in future legislative sessions better by making our deliberations less partisan,” Tuss testified. “Overwhelmingly, Montana residents want us as legislators to heed their call to legislate in a bipartisan manner.”

The idea garnered support from members of Montana’s political old guard who participated in — or at least, remember — the state’s 1972 Constitutional Convention, where delegates were seated by surname. 

“Montana’s Constitutional Convention sat alphabetically as it attempted to deal with each issue on its merits,” delegate Arlyne Reichert testified in writing. “Although there were heated debates, after lengthy discussions, we were able to come together and complete the task. All 100 delegates, Republicans, Democrats and Independents signed the Constitution at the end of the Convention. Unlikely friendships bloomed, and the seeds of mutual respect were planted.”

It’s time, she wrote, for the Legislature to go back to its “ABCs.” 

The current arrangement of the body encourages animosity and opposition, others testified. 

“Have you ever noticed that when two people sit at a table, they often choose chairs on opposite sides? This is automatically adversarial in terms of territory — the kind of seating arrangement that divorce attorneys and their clients typically adopt,” said Mick Ringsak, a longtime Butte Republican politico who served as a regional appointee under President George W. Bush. 

He cited his long-standing friendship with Democrat Evan Barrett — Butte’s political “odd couple” — as evidence that reframing the terms of interpersonal legislative engagement can be effective. 

“It is unfortunate that we have reached a point in politics that people of opposing views getting along and working together warrants a front-page story,” he said. 

The bill’s co-sponsors are mostly Democrats, though some Republicans, including longtime lobbyist-turned-lawmaker Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, have signed on. 

And of course acrimony between the parties is not for nothing. Lawmakers this session are debating morally weighty questions of LGBTQ rights and access to abortion, among other things.

Members of the committee seemed to engage positively with Tuss’ idea, though they identified a few current seating traditions they might like to keep. Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, suggested an amendment that would allow the parties to designate exceptions to alphabetical ordering for legislative leaders, who tend to sit on the aisles. Additionally, he encouraged Tuss to consider that the back row or two of the chamber is usually reserved for people with mobility issues. 

Lastly, he noted that one element of the bill could cause more pressing issues if passed. Its current langage calls for an immediate effective date, meaning lawmakers would have to reseat themselves in the middle of the current session. Stafman encouraged a language change that would have the bill take effect at the beginning of next session.

“I’ve gotten attached to my desk,” he said.

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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.