Monday, March 20, 2023

What Washington could learn from Montana

by Tony Brockman and Melissa Romano
| February 5, 2023 12:00 AM

Ingredients: Montana beef. Hog casings. Spices. Lawmakers. Democrats. Republicans. Urban. Rural.

On a cold winter morning in the town of Clancy, state legislators gathered to make sausage. Clancy has two bars, two churches, a school and a post office. It’s the kind of place that lends itself to community sausage making.

There is an old expression that you don’t want to see two things being made: sausage and laws. But when the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center brought together a bipartisan group of legislators, we learned that saying sells both short.

We were called together to learn, both literally and figuratively, how the sausage gets made in the spirit of Mike Mansfield, a Montana legend and our nation’s longest-serving U.S. Senate majority leader. Mansfield offers an example of statesmanship and bridging divides in tumultuous times. He understood that partisanship was always secondary to a shared obligation to the public good and the Constitution. That ethic earned him respect from across the political spectrum for his bipartisan leadership, his willingness to share power, and his commitment to listening to those with opinions different than his own.

We could use a little more of that these days, both in Washington and Helena. The Montana Legislature meets only every other year for 90 days. With term limits, an individual may serve as a state representative or senator for no more than eight years in a 16-year period. As a result, we need to work fast to get to know each other and figure out the best way to serve the people of Montana.

There were 16 of us that day, split between Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, east and west. For many of us, it was our first time serving in the Legislature. Led by attorney, chef and Mansfield Center board advisor Jon Bennion, we cubed the Montana meat, carefully grinding it to get the right texture. We measured out the spices to get the right balance of flavors. With hand-crank stuffers, we cased the sausage.

In the process, we learned the best practices for sausage making, with a surprising number of parallels for good legislating.

Like making sure to read the recipe (read the bill), knowing there is no substitute for getting in there with your hands (acquainting yourself with all steps of the law-making process), and sharing the bounty (credit all around). That day we covered key tips for both, arms deep in ground meat while party labels and fierce policy battles were forgotten — at least for a few hours.

It’s easy to romanticize the good old days when the tenor of politics didn’t seem quite so rancorous. Yet while there have always been hard-fought battles that tested our government and our way of life, we seem to have reached a new low where gridlock and animosity is the norm.

We can do better. America wants better.

Rather than assign blame to who has most contributed to our acrimonious climate, we could just start by saying we all have fallen short in making the best sausage possible. If our democracy and way of life are to survive and thrive, it is imperative that we build upon Sen. Mansfield’s legacy of ethical leadership, communication, and bipartisanship to address the challenges facing our nation today.

By working together on the common goal of making tasty sausage, we fostered relationships that will help lead to good policy down the road. We have watched civility wither on the national stage. But our small group looks at one another a bit differently after our morning in Clancy. We returned to state legislative chambers to share these lessons of sausage making, spreading grassroots civility from the ground up. That means taking some risks in forming relationships across the aisles, keeping our cool when tempers flare, and sharing the credit when we succeed together.

Could lessons in sausage making be the key to getting us on a fiscally sound path, addressing immigration issues, or lowering healthcare costs? That may be too naïve. We know the strong tides we are up against. But we believe if we take some bold steps out of our current political comfort zones, we just may make some great sausage.

Rep. Tony Brockman, R–Kalispell and Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, are freshman Montana legislators. Brockman works in digital marketing; Romano is an instructional coach in the Helena public schools.

Recent Headlines