Montana legislators learn to make law — and sausage

A lobbyist is hosting a workshop for new state lawmakers in which they’ll hear from more experienced legislators and make actual sausages.
(AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

For more than two centuries, skeptics of the political process have turned to the 18th century American poet John Godfrey Saxe to dump on the legislative process: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

That cynical comment, sometimes misattributed to Otto von Bismarck, inspired Jon Bennion, a longtime Montana Republican: Why not bring legislators together, before they make laws, to make sausage?

On Saturday, Bennion, a former deputy attorney general who now lobbies for a group of Montana-based companies, will host a workshop for new lawmakers headed to Helena for their first terms in office. In the midst of inspiring messages from more experienced legislators, they will get their hands dirty — by making actual sausages.

“There’s a right way to do laws and there’s a right way to make sausage,” Bennion said in an interview.

Bennion said he wanted to bring legislators together, outside of the context of partisan politics or inter-chamber warfare, to foster working relationships.

“I’ve just noticed over time that, whether it’s legislators or members of Congress or government in general, the missing ingredient we’re starting to see in policy and politics is civility,” Bennion said. “When you talk to people about politics and government, they would all probably nod their heads that things have taken a turn for the worse when it comes to the way we interact with each other, the way we view the opposing side, and I think we need to concentrate more on what people bring to the table in their differences.”

Montana is among the nation’s largest producers of meat products. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show Montana farms had about 1.3 million head of beef cattle at the beginning of 2022, more than all but six other states. Texas leads the way with more than 4.6 million head of beef cattle, followed by Oklahoma and Missouri with more than 2 million each.

Bennion expects about 20 legislators to join the event at a kitchen space in Clancy, a town just south of Helena. There, freshman lawmakers will learn about the jobs they are about to take, and maybe some useful comparisons to another job that gets one’s hands dirty.

“We’re not going to talk about any of the hot topics that are going to be debated, we’re going to talk about the process,” he said. “We’ll go over some of the parallels between good sausage-making and good legislating.”

Republicans control Montana’s state government, with Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) and majorities in the state House and Senate, though factions have riven state policymaking in recent years.

Before they get to the policy fights, lawmakers who attended Bennion’s previous gatherings said the events help them put faces to the people with whom they will need to find common ground.

“It’s a different setting. Generally you’re not rolling around, cutting up meat,” said state Sen. Jason Small (R), who tried his hand at sausage-making a few years ago. “It was a bonding opportunity that nothing else offers, obviously.”