HELENA — They call it the Constitution Caucus, and its message rang clear as veteran Rep. Krayton Kerns rose in the state House Friday to oppose a bill to provide counseling for children from violent homes.
“Don't vote your heart on this one, vote your oath,” Kerns urged his fellow legislators. “The constitutional vote on this is no because it will grow government.”
Rep. James Knox, a freshman Republican from Billings, couldn’t have agreed more. Killing the bill wasn’t the easy thing to do, he said, but it is why he and others were sent to Helena. Helping the needy is a job for communities, individuals and churches – not the government, he added.
Both men are members of what they call the Constitution Caucus, a loose affiliation of conservative legislators, some with ties to Tea Party groups. Their unifying belief is that more government means less freedom. The “freedom bills” they espouse so far cover causes ranging from beating back federal health care reform to expanding gun rights.
Just how much clout the caucus will have this session is unclear. By a vote of 56-44, it lost Friday’s vote on the child domestic violence bill, which was sponsored by a fellow Republican. Convincing more centrist Republicans to follow along may be the group’s biggest challenge.
“It is so easy to get soft up here,” Kerns said in an interview early last week. “It is so easy when you're wasting somebody else's money. You can vote for this little program for these little kids, for those little kids, and it's tough to hold on to constitutional principles.”
Kerns, a 53-year-old Laurel veterinarian serving in his third session, ran unsuccessfully for House speaker in November. He has his own website and is the author of “Ramblings of a Conservative Cow Doctor,” a collection of columns published in the Western Ag Reporter and the Laurel Outlook.
For now, he said, the caucus is informal. It has no official members list, but Kerns estimated that as many as 45 legislators agree with its causes. In the Senate, caucus members include Sen. Verdell Jackson, a Kalispell Republican whose bills include efforts to nullify the federal health care act and to allow legislators to carry concealed weapons in the capitol.
Another supporter, Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, has a bill saying that federal authorities can only carry out arrests, searches and seizures with the permission of local sheriffs. The “Sheriff's First” bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation the group is working on this session, Kerns said.
“We're not going to back off,” Kerns said. “We (Republicans) have a 68-vote majority in the House for a reason and we're going to advance the constitutional principles that elected us.”
Kerns’ own bills include efforts to legalize the carrying of concealed weapon without permits and to use silencers in the field. Another would to nullify the federal Endangered Species Act so Montana would have full say in managing its wildlife.
He is no stranger to such issues. Two years ago Kerns backed an unsuccessful resolution declaring that Montana has the right under the U.S. Constitution’s Tenth Amendment to ignore any federal law it deemed unconstitutional.
Both Kerns and Knox said they see the caucus' principles matching up with those of Tea Party movement, and both said they work closely with their hometown organizations.
Jackson refers to the Tea Party groups as “freedom groups” because of their focus on Tenth Amendment rights and state sovereignty. He said he wanted to call the caucus the Freedom Caucus or the Freedom Group for that reason.
Kerns said some caucus members worried that linking the group too closely with the Tea Party would lead the news media to portray the caucus as a split from the Republican Party. “And I'm telling you it's not going to happen,” he said.
Rep. Cary Smith, a Republican whip from Billings, said he supports the caucus but worries about tying it too closely to the Tea Party. He doesn’t want to discourage Democrats from joining the group, whose focus, he added, is on states’ rights, not party lines.
For their part, Democratic leaders in both houses said they aren’t ruling out collaborations with Republicans on efforts to boost Montana’s economy or create jobs, but don’t foresee an alliance on state sovereignty issues.
As for the Republican leadership, House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said he hasn't attended Constitution Caucus meetings but then he doesn't have time to attend many meetings. He described the Constitution Caucus no different than any group of legislators with a special interest.
Kerns agreed with McGillvray to some extent.
“We all have the common goal about freedom and advancing constitutional principles,” he said. “There are those of us who feel stronger about it than others, and we're just going to work to drag them along.”
Craig Wilson, a professor of political science at MSU-Billings, said such divisions are common when parties that have large legislative majorities. He also predicted that more moderate Republicans will occasionally vote with moderate Democrats, especially when it comes to nullifying federal laws.
“If they take off on some grand scheme, I don't think it's going to work,” Wilson said. “Even if they get it through the House and the Senate, you still have the governor there with that big club in terms of a veto.”
(Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at (208) 816-0809 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)