John Olsrud: When Bipartisanship Is The Right Way


Last week Rob Port had an article on this blog calling the actions of House Majority Leader Al Carlson petty when he opposed the action of a majority on Legislative Management to name a few Democrats to chairmanships and vice chairmanships of interim committees. I think a good case can be made that appointing minority members to leadership positions during the interim is the smart thing for the majority party to do.

The reason for appointing members of the minority party to chair study committees is not to reward those members—it is to take politics out of the interim study process. North Dakota has a proud tradition of using the interim between sessions to study and find bipartisan solutions to major problems facing our state. Long ago it was decided there is enough politics during legislative sessions. Once the session was over, countless leaders, mostly Republicans, used to announce that the time for politics was over, and it was time to set political differences aside and get serious about trying to find solutions to the problems of our state.

Smart leaders of the majority party have known how to use the minority to remove politics from hard decisions. Two years ago I sent a letter to the editor of several newspapers in which I told that my favorite example of the importance of a bipartisan interim study process is when a fire severely damaged the main building at the State Normal and Industrial School in Ellendale, a constitutional institution of higher education. Republican leaders, especially Bryce Streibel, who was House Majority Leader and Chairman of the Legislative Council, knew how damaging this issue would be if it became a partisan issue. Using the bipartisan structure he had inherited, Streibel appointed a Democrat, Representative Oscar Solberg, to chair an interim committee to study what should be done. Of course the Republicans controlled the process because they had the votes, but by appointing a Democrat to chair the committee, Streibel removed politics from the issue, and Representative Solberg’s committee made the necessary recommendations that resulted in the closure of the institution.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]I think a good case can be made that appointing minority members to leadership positions during the interim is the smart thing for the majority party to do. [/mks_pullquote]

Can you imagine how damaging it would have been if this issue of the closing of one of the constitutional colleges in North Dakota had become a partisan battle? Continuing the bipartisan traditions of the interim process has always been a challenge for the majority party, and majority leaders have had to account to members of their caucuses who did not understand why minority members were chairing study committees. Until that tradition was broken in 2011, majority leaders of both parties, including the Democrats when they controlled the Legislative Council from 1986 to 1994, stood strong in honoring a tradition that has served our state well.

Unlike other states that have not had this bipartisan structure, changing party control of legislative chambers has been very smooth in North Dakota, as members of minority parties have had experience chairing study committees and have been prepared to assume their new roles when they have found themselves in the majority. A few years ago, a man named David Prosser, now a member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court who got some notoriety in the Governor Scott Walker versus public employee issue, was speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly and chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures Legislative Management Committee, of which I was staff vice chairman. Speaker Prosser told me when he was elected speaker, not a single member of his Republican caucus had ever held a chairmanship of a legislative committee. I was proud to tell him that would never happen in North Dakota, as we had a strong bipartisan interim process as described above.

There was a time when bipartisanship was so honored in North Dakota that the vice chairman of the Legislative Council was often a member of the minority party. When Bryce Streibel was chairman of the Legislative Council and chose not to run for reelection, a Democrat, Senator Lee Christensen, was vice chairman. There was a gap of several months before the Council elected a new chairman, and Senator Christensen, a member of the minority, was thus the head of the Council during a legislative session.

When the majority party refuses to name members of the minority to interim committee chairmanships, legislators in the minority are relegated to the sidelines. As outsiders, they end up having no ownership and can do little other than issue press releases and write letters to the editor attacking the majority. The majority party ends up wasting time defending legislative travel or other expenditures the majority has decided were needed, when that could be avoided if the minority members were meaningful participants in the process. In addition, the nonpartisan Legislative Council staff is placed in the uncomfortable position of appearing to be working for only one political party.

‘My guess is that some members of the majority are envious when members of the minority get free publicity as committee chairmen. It is true committee chairmen are often quoted in the press, but with a supermajority in both houses, Republicans can be assured they will get most of the publicity. When interim studies are ending, Republican legislators decide what conclusions are reached, and that is as it should be. Whatever comes out of interim committees is whatever the majority wants. If their conclusions are reached with bipartisan support, the Republican majority has a better chance of public approval of their interim work.

‘We can all be proud of the strong bipartisan tradition the interim process has experienced in the past, and we can only hope the Republican leadership will continue to honor this tradition, and see that it is in their best interests to limit partisan politics during the process.