Helena’s all-hat-no-cattle legislation

April 28, 2021 4:17 am

Cowboy hat (Courtesy Pixabay/Creative Commons, public domain)

We’re told by the experts that 2.6 million beef cattle live in Montana.  That’s two-and-a-half head per person.  Most Montanans won’t get much closer to cattle than a hamburger or a T-bone steak.  For others, though, cattle are a way of life.

Mythically, this cattle-world’s denizens are cowboys.  Prosaically, they’re ranch hands.  Cowboys are the stuff of lore.  You’ve seen the films and read the books and cheered at the rodeos:  When the word is said, the images conjure themselves.  We admire the code, even if we only wear the boots.

Ranch hands, by contrast, are working stiffs.  Their days are long and their fences are longer.  The weather is way too hot, unless it’s way too cold.  Theirs is a hard life but a simple one.  We admire it, too, even though few of us aspire to it.  It’s ranch hands and not their mythical counterparts that Willie Nelson sings about when he pleads:  “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys / Don’t let ’em pick guitars or drive them old trucks / Let ’em be doctors and lawyers and such.”

So there’s cowboys and there’s ranch hands.  And then there’s the other folks, the ones who are, as the epithet goes, all hat and no cattle.  A cowboy is the stuff of myth.  A ranch hand is the stuff of sweat.  These other people?  Well, as Tallulah Bankhead once said, “There’s less in this than meets the eye.”

These distinctions have been on our minds as we’ve watched the 67th session of the Montana Legislature.  Some of its work has been ranch-hand stuff.  Meat-and-potatoes.  Hard but simple.  Some of it has been all hat and no cattle.  Mostly “show” and not much “go.”

Exhibit number one for ranch-hand legislation is House Bill No. 2, “An Act Appropriating Money to Various State Agencies for the Biennium Ending June 30, 2023.”  It’s an omnibus bill that explains in 60 pages of detail how the State of Montana plans to spend each of its public dollars in the fiscal years ending three Junes from now.  It’s methodical but uncomplicated.  Like ranch work, it’s hard but simple.

Other ranch-hand exhibits abound.  Legislation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana is currently under favorable consideration.  A bill has already become law that declares open warfare on wolves in Montana.  Perhaps you approve of the marijuana bill and frown on the wolf one.  Or vice versa.  Whatever your predilections, though, you recognize an actual, results-driven statute when you see one.  Like HB2, this is real legislation to real effect.  They’re pieces of work truly done.

And then we’ve got this all-hat-no-cattle legislation.  Legislation whose purpose is posturing.  From legislators who are saying “see how I look” rather than “see what I’ve done.”  Items:

  • Abortion.  HB337 sought a constitutional amendment reaffirming that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” and declaring that life begins “at the stage of fertilization or conception.”  Put two and two together and a terminated pregnancy becomes a murder.  Our pro-life friends could have proclaimed “mission accomplished.”  As I’ve explained elsewhere, we know that real pro-life measures aren’t about criminalizing abortion.  But HB337 was never about eliminating abortion.  It was all hat and no cattle.
  • Concealed carry.  When Gov. Greg Gianforte signed HB102 it became legal for a student – or for a professor, I presume – to carry a concealed weapon into a Montana university classroom.  The distinction, pre- and post-HB102, is pure Bankhead, i.e., “less … than meets the eye.”  Pre-HB102 I could conceal-carry into the classroom.  It was illegal but, who knew?  It was, you know, concealed.  After HB102 conceal-carry is legal but, again, who knows?  It’s still concealed.  HB102’s principal sponsor continued the theater by wearing a mask to the Governor’s signing ceremony.  The masked sported the silhouette of an automatic rifle and the warning, “Come and take it.”  The warning referred to the weapon, not to the mask.
  • Sanctuary Cities.  And now the governor has signed HB200 into a statute.  The law prohibits local governments “from enacting or enforcing … policies concerning citizenship and immigration.”  Short form:  It bans sanctuary cities, that is, localities that decline to cooperate fully with federal immigration authorities wishing to apprehend illegal aliens.  You’ll be excused if you’re unfamiliar with the concept: There is no sanctuary city in all of Montana.  Indeed, illegal aliens are themselves a rare breed:  by one account they constitute less than half a percent of the total population.  So why the statute?  You may think of HB200 as a solution in search of a problem.  I prefer to think of it as all hat and no cattle.


You know all-hat-no-cattle legislation when you see it: It puts heat under a problem but avoids shedding light on its solutions.  We’ve learned that real pro-life measures focus on improved sex education in classrooms and enhanced planned parenthood beyond them, so that the major cause of abortion – unwanted pregnancy – is reduced.  We’re told that 39 percent of America’s gunowners have no gun safety training, and we wonder if HB102 wouldn’t have been improved by a section or two on gun safety.  Immigration is a complicated problem that requires a pragmatic solution.  Banning a sanctuary city that doesn’t exist?  How does that help?

Their sponsors aren’t legislating.  They’re preening.

If Shakespeare had encountered a piece of Montana’s all-hat-no-cattle legislation, he would have exclaimed, as did Macbeth, that “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  But don’t worry.  Thanks to ranch-hand bills like HB2, the State of Montana will continue to meet its payroll.


Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana.  A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Red Lodge and Vienna.

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Bruce Lohof
Bruce Lohof

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he divides his time between Red Lodge and Vienna.