Havre Daily News: Tester talks transparency, campaign spending and defense authorization

by Patrick Johnston

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester held a press call Thursday in which he answered a number of questions about the National Defense Authorization Act and announced a pair of bills designed to increase transparency and curb the influence of money in Washington.

The NDAA, which authorizes how the military can and cannot use the funds that will be appropriated, was the biggest subject of discussion on the call with Tester touting the bill’s importance.

He said China is looking to supplant the U.S. in terms of economic and military supremacy on the world stage and that cannot be allowed to happen, which is why so much of the bill focuses on countering China’s influence.

Tester said he is in full support of an amendment that would ban foreign adversaries like China from purchasing American farmland, which he said will increase the nation’s food security and prevent China from spying on nearby military installations.

When asked if he thought this provision would inspire economic retaliation by China he said he doubts it.

He said China already doesn’t allow the U.S. to purchase their farmland so they shouldn’t have any reason to object.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he said.

If China were to impose economic sanctions in retaliation, which Tester said is possible, they will just have to live with it, because this provision is necessary for the purpose of safety and security.

He said he suspects that Montana won’t see a huge impact from this provision since China isn’t buying enough land to really affect the market, but this provision will make sure it stays that way.

When asked about the House version of the bill, which will need to be reconciled with the Senate’s version in conference once both are passed, he said it contains a lot of unjustifiable and ideologically driven provisions such as preventing the Department of Defense from providing money for abortions or gender affirming care for service members.

He said battles over such social issues have no place in this must-pass bill and should be fought elsewhere.

He said he thinks the Senate’s bill is a lot more reasonable and he suspects many of these provisions in the House bill won’t make it through reconciliation.

“I do think the Senate is the adult in the room here,” he said.

Tester said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has empowered a lot of people in the body who want to see a government shutdown and the speaker needs to get them under control.

He said when the session resumes in September, the appropriations for the defense department authorized by this bill will be his highest priority and a shutdown or continuing resolution are unacceptable.

He said this fixation on ideological fights in this bill, as well as the fact that military promotions are still being held up by one senator who doesn’t like the fact that the military helps pay for reproductive health care, is unjustifiable, unprecedented in his time in the Senate and “bordering on treason.”

“Hopefully folks back there will grow up and do the right thing,” he said.

During the call Tester, was also asked about the recent news that then-Montana Veterans Affairs Director Judy Hayman was being replaced by the U.S. VA over numerous oversight concerns.

Montana VA has declined to comment specifically on Hayman’s departure citing “operational oversight concerns.”

Tester said there were a number of reasons for Hayman’s replacement but it was the right call to do so.

He said this is part of a troubling trend of leadership turnover at the Montana VA, which has had 11 directors since 2009 which is not acceptable.

He said the Montana VA does a lot of great and necessary work for Montana veterans and there seems to be confidence in Hayman’s replacement, but he is going to monitor the situation closely and see that this turnover problem is examined in greater detail.

Tester also talked about a pair of bills he is sponsoring that would ban members of Congress from becoming lobbyists at any point after leaving their legislative positions, and another that would require legislators to post their public schedules which would include any official meetings they have with lobbyists.

He said he doesn’t believe anyone should be able to cash out on the privilege of public service and that the prospect of securing a high-paying job as a lobbyist after being in the Legislature is an inherently corrupting incentive.

He also said legislators should be required by law to post their public schedules, including every meeting they have in an official capacity as a legislator, as he has done voluntarily for years, as he has been doing since elected to the Senate.

He said the people of the U.S. want to know what their representatives are doing and who they are meeting with and it is unacceptable that so many hide who they are talking to.

During the press call Tester invited Legislative Affairs Director Rashad Thomas of End Citizens United, a non-profit organization devoted to getting money out of politics and increasing transparency in the Legislature, to speak about these two bills.

Thomas said the grassroots organization’s 4 million members aim to defend U.S. democracy from the influence of money which has destroyed the citizens’ trust in their government.

He said trust in the government has plummeted to historic lows and people increasingly believe that said government works primarily in the interest of the rich and special interest groups, a belief that he said is well-founded.

He said his organization is in support of both of Tester’s bills and they are lucky to have the senator as a champion for their cause, praising him for being the first and one of the few senators to make a point of showing their public schedule voluntarily.

“When I was a teenager in Florida as a political geek, I would go to Sen. Tester’s website, way back in 2007 and see all of his meetings,” Thomas said.

He said faith in democracy must be restored or that democracy will be further put at risk.

When Tester was asked about the possibility of any serious campaign finance reform he said the prospects were bleak as long as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remains in power.

He said he doesn’t necessarily want to call out specific people, but it’s just a fact that McConnell will make sure any legislation with a serious chance of reforming the system will be killed.

Tester was also asked if he was concerned about how his support for these bills would hurt his chances of reelection and how he would handle donations made to him.

He said the current set up of politics is unfortunate but to get anything done its a game that needs to be played, much as he doesn’t like it.

He said if there’s any chance at reform he’ll need all the help he can get, and he’s not going to turn down a potential advantage, though he will fight to end the unfairness of the system while he does so.

He said this issue is especially important to Montanans.

Tester said it wasn’t long ago that the “copper kings” ran the state and from that dark time in Montana politics was born a citizen-led tide of reform that resulted in some of the best transparency and campaign finance laws of any state in the U.S.

He said this issue is a Montana value and he will fight for it.