Tester Sees Hope for Outdoors and Forestry Bills

Flathead Beacon

by Myers Reece

With new faces in Congress, senator believes his signature bills have a shot

Sen. Jon Tester hasn’t given up hope on two of his signature bills from his first term: the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the Sportsmen’s Act. In particular, he sounds invigorated about the forest bill’s chance of revival.

But Tester’s enthusiasm, while cautious, comes with a major caveat: He knows nothing will get done on those bills, or many others, until the federal government figures out its financial situation.

During a visit with the Beacon last week, the Democrat said Congress will be wholly consumed with budget talks in the coming weeks and perhaps months as it tries to hammer out a deficit-reduction deal and solve the debt-ceiling crisis.

Congress has until March 1 to reach a deficit deal and avoid automatic spending cuts, while a fight over the debt ceiling looms in mid-April after the House GOP recently proposed to raise the borrowing limit for three months. Republicans had previously insisted that a deal to raise the limit must include significant spending cuts.

Tester said the New Year’s debt deal that prevented the nation from going over the fiscal cliff – but only extended the timeline on automatic spending cuts until March – “didn’t do anything but kick the can down the road.”

“The longer we keep putting it off, the harder it’s going to be,” he said.

Tester expressed concern over the debt ceiling, which is the maximum amount of money the federal government is allowed by law to borrow. If the borrowing limit isn’t raised and the government defaults on its spending obligations, economists warn of potentially dire consequences for the national and global economy – including a possible plunge back into recession.

“The debt ceiling – now that’s a cliff,” Tester said.

Tester said solutions to these complex problems require a commitment to “shared sacrifice,” and he supports a solution that includes both spending decreases and revenue increases. But he isn’t entirely optimistic about Congress’ ability to compromise.

Following the November elections, the senator was hopeful that Congress could put much of the petty politics behind it and refocus on the important issues. Yet he quickly saw that his hopes might have been naïve, with deficit-reduction talks taking on essentially the same combative tone as before the elections.

“It hasn’t changed at all,” he said.

Tester said one of his own bills fell victim to politics: the Sportsmen’s Act, a package of measures that increased public access for hunters and anglers, supported conservation efforts and addressed a number of other sportsmen-related issues.

The senator said the bill had the backing of nearly 50 conservation and wildlife groups, ranging from The Nature Conservancy to the National Rifle Association. Buoyed by that far-ranging support, the bill sailed through the Senate with 84-7 and 92-5 votes.

But as it approached a final vote in late November, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., argued the legislation violated the Budget Control Act of 2011, which placed limits on spending. Sessions specifically pointed to the bill’s provision that would raise the cost of the federal duck stamp. The bill has been stalled in the Senate ever since.

“It got screwed up because of politics,” Tester said.

Yet Tester remains hopeful that once Congress has time to address matters other than deficit reduction and the debt ceiling, the Sportsmen’s Act will have a chance at revival. He feels similarly about his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of 2009, which would mandate national forest timber-harvest projects while designating hundreds of thousands of acres of new wilderness in Montana and preserving outdoor recreation opportunities.

In crafting the bill, the senator spent many hours meeting with a wide range of interests, including conservationists, outdoor recreationists and sportsmen, and representatives of the forest products industry.

Tester is optimistic that new faces in Congress give the package a better chance at consideration. He’s reached out to newly elected Rep. Steve Daines, R-Montana, who he believes will give the proposal an “honest review” and possibly offer help in the House. Tester will keep his eye out for any indications that the bill could move forward.

“When the opportunity knocks,” he said, “we’ll open the door.”