In 1995 22 news organizations – including newspapers, television and radio stations and trade and professional news associations – sued the Montana Legislature to open all Republican and Democratic House and Senate caucuses.
In 1998 District Judge Thomas Honzel ruled in favor of the news media and declared all legislative caucus meetings must be open to the public.
“Clearly, legislators gather at caucuses to discuss the public's business," Honzel wrote in his decision. "When they do so, the public has a right to observe their discussions and to be informed about what happens at those meetings."
The dirty little secret at the Capitol is that lawmakers from both parties, in both houses, have more-or-less ignored the court’s ruling…or at the spirit of the ruling. For the most part, the open caucus meetings that are announced on the House and Senate floors and held in meeting rooms during a recess in floor action are more show than substance.
The real party caucusing happens behind closed doors or at off-site locations.
Sometimes caucus leaders hold meetings at the Capitol with fewer than half the caucus members present. Without a quorum present, they can legally turn away the news media. This has happened to me in past sessions.
We in the Capitol press corps are also aware of off-site caucus meetings which place throughout the session. I’ve never been to one, but I’ve heard about them after the fact.
In past sessions I’ve seen large numbers of the House Democratic caucus walking to and from the Montana State Firemen’s Association office, which is located in house across the street from the Capitol on North Montana Ave.
I have also heard multiple tales of early-morning Senate Republican caucus meetings taking place at Jorgenson’s Restaurant and Lounge, on 11th Ave.
But as far as I know, it’s rare for an entire caucus to meet in secret, in the Capitol, during regular business hours.
At noon today I strolled onto the House floor and was surprised to see there wasn’t a single House Republican on the floor. Nor was anyone in the House leadership offices.
I went down to the basement “bullpen,” an area in the west end of the Capitol basement where legislators hold meetings, eat lunch and otherwise relax during the session. The House Democrats lay claim to one portion of the bullpen, and the Republicans occupy the other room.
These areas are typically off-limits to the public and the press. A sign outside the door reads: “Legislators, staff and family only please!”
The door to the House GOP’s room is almost always open, so when I saw it was closed I became very curious. Without knocking I walked in and found myself in what was obviously meeting of the full House GOP caucus, led by House Speaker Mark Blasdel. A few members might have been absent, but I counted at least 52 GOP House members in the room. Clearly a quorum.
A House GOP staffer tried to turn me away at the door, but I showed him my press credentials and informed him that this was a party caucus meeting and thus open to the press. Montana GOP executive director Bowen Greenwood recognized me immediately and whispered something to House Majority Leader Gordon Vance, who then whispered to Blasdel, who looked in my direction and then carried on with the meeting.
My presence was immediately noted by just about everyone in the room. A few lawmakers shot me uncomfortable looks. A few appeared to be visibly peeved.
Blasdel told the caucus he expected a blast motion on Senate Bill 395, Missoula Democrat Sen. Dave Wanzenried’s Medicaid reform bill that was heard yesterday in the House Human Services Committee.
“The majority of leadership doesn’t support full expansion,” Blasdel told the caucus. “Just so you know, if that bill comes out, it is full expansion.”
Blasdel turned the floor over to Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, who talked about the key points he planned to raise on the floor in opposition to blasting SB395.
Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, thanked the caucus for “sticking together” and voting “no” on a SB375, Buffalo Republican Sen. Jim Peterson’s anti-dark money campaign finance bill.
Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, was one of 15 Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to bring the bill to the floor for debate.
“I liked the blast,” Ankney said. “Dark money is dark money.”
After the meeting, which lasted about 15 minutes, Blasdel told me House Republicans weren’t trying to hide anything by holding a caucus meeting without notice in a basement room that is off-limits to the public and the press.
“It was just trying to get people up to speed. It just drags on the floor,” Blasdel said. “There’s nothing hidden. No secret deals.”
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, admitted that Democrats, too, occasionally gather outside of the official announced caucus meetings. But Hunter denied the caucus violates the 1998 court ruling when they do get together.
“We routinely get together with members in the morning for an informal informational meeting,” Hunter said. “Members are not required to attend and we don’t have everybody there.”
Would I be turned away if I showed up?
“No. You’d likely be bored and show yourself the door,” Hunter said.
Hunter said one time this session a group of House Democrats met in numbers that did not constitute a quorum in order to discuss strategy. Hunter said when the caucus meets to take a caucus position on a bill that is done in public.
Either way, the notion that party caucus meetings are open to the press and public is pretty much a sham. Party leaders gain no advantage by disclosing their legislative strategy in the open. The real caucus whipping happens behind closed doors, often off site, and usually beyond the reach of the prying eyes and ears of the press and the public.