Jon Tester: Congress must tend to economy for it to recover
PABLO – The only working farmer in the United States Senate compared America's goal of economic recovery to agriculture Tuesday.
Speaking at the annual Salish Kootenai College Career Fair here, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told a crowd of nearly 150 people that Congress has difficult decisions to make regarding spending cuts that he said must be made.
"As a farmer, I know you can't spend more than you have," Tester said, "and I know you can't just plant seeds and assume everything will turn out fine, either."
The soil must be prepared, he said, and crops cared for. It takes long hours and hard work.
"You have to have good equipment, and you have to keep it greased," Tester went on. "We can cut spending and the debt, but you can't cut the grease that keeps everything running."
The "grease," in the case of the economic recovery, Tester said, is America's infrastructure – both physical and human.
Cutting spending that lets America's roads crumble, or contributes to a less well-educated work force, will backfire in the long run, Tester predicted.
"It's going to take a lot more than gimmicks and grandstanding," Tester said. "You can't take a battle axe to the budget and think you're going to create jobs. Building policies that strengthen our economy, and creating jobs, are the front-and-center issues facing both our state, and our nation."
Most economists predict that slashing spending in the wrong areas will hurt the economic recovery and job growth, according to the first-term senator.
"We're just coming out of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," Tester said. "If we screw up this recovery, we're only going to make it worse."
Not until Congress tackles entitlement programs and defense spending will it start to make a dent in the federal deficit, Tester said.
"Discretionary spending is a very small part of the overall budget," he told the crowd.
"When you're looking at a 13-, 14-, 15-trillion-dollar debt, discretionary spending has to be a part of the conversation. But if that's all that ever gets talked about, we're never going to get to where we need to be."
Pell grants, which help defray part of the cost of a college education for children from low-income families, are a good example, according to Tester.
In response to an SKC student who asked if rumors were true that the grants were being cut, Tester said he understood the U.S. House of Representatives had voted to cut some Pell grant funding, but added, "The Senate will have a say" before anything is sent to the president.
"If Pell grants are a part of the cuts, I think that would be a mistake," Tester said.
In response to other questions from the crowd, Tester also said:
His Forest Jobs and Recreation Act will likely be re-introduced soon, probably attached as an amendment to another bill because it is Montana-specific, and Congress otherwise would not get around to considering it.
"We'll drop it in very soon, probably without much fanfare," Tester said. "We've already been through that part, and had the fanfare."
He liked an idea a Montana farmer had put forth at one of the agricultural roundtables Tester has sponsored.
America, the farmer had said, had turned into a nation of "consumers who don't know how to grow stuff," and fewer and fewer people are entering the farming business. The farmer suggested a "Farm Corps" modeled after the Job Corps to introduce young people to agricultural careers.
And, asked his reaction to Gov. Brian Schweitzer's recent comments about defying the federal government when it came to wolves, Tester said he was hopeful a bill put forth by him and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus would clear Congress.
"It would put it back the way it was" before Judge Donald Molloy issued a decision that returned wolves to the endangered species list, Tester said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has introduced similar legislation in the House, Tester said, and if all goes as they hope, Schweitzer's "comments would be moot."
Tester presented former SKC president Joe McDonald, who helped to found the tribal college 33 years ago, with a framed copy of remarks the senator made about McDonald for the Congressional Record.
Prior to his speech, Tester also spent 30 minutes visiting with Lance Cpl. Thomas Parker, the 21-year-old Marine from nearby Ronan who lost both legs and four fingers in an explosion in Afghanistan in December.
Parker is home on a week's leave from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, where he is an outpatient, and it was the second time Tester has met with him.
After being "blown up," as Parker describes it, by an improvised explosive device, the Marine spent seven weeks undergoing multiple surgeries at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Tester was the only member of Montana's congressional delegation to visit him in the hospital over the seven weeks, although Baucus sent Parker a flag he had asked to be flown over the U.S. Capitol for a day in the Marine's honor.