Tester: Democracy is being tested

by Sarah Dettmer, Great Falls Tribune

Sen. Jon Tester visited Helena Middle School on Friday afternoon to host a town hall meeting geared toward public lands issues. However, it wasn’t long before the questions and subsequent conversation turned to broader political issues.

The audience raised concerns about President Donald Trump’s newly released budget, the proposed border wall and the upcoming special election for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vacated congressional seat.

One woman, who referred to herself as the “crazy lady from Clancy who has written (Tester’s) office several times,” stood to ask the senator how he feels about Trump’s proposed budget and the amount of money allocated to the military and to building a wall along the Mexican border.

“Democracy gets tested on occasion and the country has been around for a while and I’m going to tell you it is being tested right now,” Tester, D-Mont., said. “The checks and balances are being tested, the budgetary process is being tested, the amount of money that flows into the campaigns around this country – people are starting to get an awareness of what that really means. I will tell you there are many nights when I go to bed that I don’t sleep too well. But one thing that puts me at ease a little bit is the issues that have come up over the last month, two months – actually six months, haven’t gone away. They continue to be there and people continue to be outspoken.”

Through the past few months, Tester said he has received numerous calls, emails, faxes and letters to his offices regarding issues important to the people of Montana. That, he said, is the key to democracy.
As far as the proposed budget, Tester told the audience not to think of it as the president’s budget. It’s Congress’ budget, Tester said. It still gets to look at it, critique it and ultimately decide whether it will approve it.

There are plenty of reasons to put $54 billion into the military, Tester said. One being that the United States has been at war for 15 years.

“But here’s where I have a problem,” Tester said. “When we first went into Iraq, that war was put on a credit card and you don’t put wars on a credit card, you pay for them. If you pay for them, it would make us think twice before we went into them, quite frankly.”

There is no one that would disagree with the importance of national security, Tester said. But, he believes there are better ways to handle threats to the country than funneling billions into the military and constructing a border wall.

Tester quoted former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer when he said, “You build a 10-foot wall, they’ll build a 12-foot ladder.”

Tester is a high-ranking member on the Homeland Security subcommittee and appropriations and said the committee is being directed to use $20 million to build a test wall. He said he has been talking with Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., in hopes of steering the committee away from building the prototype.

“It shouldn’t be about building a prototype wall,” Tester said. “It should be about an all-of-the-above strategy about making this country’s borders as secure as we can. It might be a wall, it might be technology, it might be manpower, it might be radar. There are all sorts of things out there. Hopefully in this country where we don’t have tons of money laying around, we can be smart in how we do this.”

Tester threw his support behind investing in technological defense strategies that he believes would be cheaper and more effective than the proposed wall.

One audience member rose to address the senator, saying he believes Montana is in a great position to enact change because Montanans will get to vote on a new congressional delegate in the May 25 special election. Democrat Rob Quist, Republican Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Mark Wicks are vying for Zinke’s vacated seat.

“This may be just a shock to all of you, but I happen to like Rob Quist a lot,” Tester said. “I think he is somebody that is honest, that is straight-forward and will absolutely work his tail off to do the right thing for the people of the state of Montana.”

Quist will be significantly outspent in this election, but money isn’t going to buy the election, Tester said.
Tester also touched on the upcoming confirmation hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch. Tester said he is weighing his options and vote heavily on what happens during the hearings and said he plans to give Gorsuch a fair shake.

“I have not made up my opinion yet,” Tester said. “I’ve told folks from the beginning, I’m not going to treat him like they did the previous appointee.”

Tester told the audience that he believed the way President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was treated was unconstitutional. On March 16, 2016, The Associated Press reported Obama urged Republicans to stop their refusal to even consider Garland as a choice.

“I will tell you on Merrick Garland’s case, I don’t think the Constitution was followed at all,” Tester said. “Nor do I think it was the right thing to do, to not even have a conversation with this guy. But I’m going to tell you what it falls back on, and this is a fact: we need financial campaign reform in this country so bad.”

When Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., announced he was going to bring Garland in for an interview, Tester said the ugliness of campaign financial control reared its head.

“After he told that to the press, he was told under no uncertain terms that if he did that, there would be a primary candidate to run against him that would be well-funded,” Tester said. “Then, Jerry said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to bring him in.’ This is craziness, folks.”

After the audience was sated with answers to their broad political questions, Tester fielded a few questions regarding public lands and his plans for communication with Zinke.

Several times over, Tester assured the audience he intends to hold Zinke accountable for the stances he took as a congressman and for the people of Montana.