Tester reflects on ups, downs of his 1st year

Billings Gazette

by Noelle Straub

WASHINGTON – One year ago, Jon Tester was a U.S. senator-to-be, had few staff members and only an idea of what awaited him in Washington.

"If you roll the clock back 12 months ago right now, we didn't have any offices open," he said recently. "We'd just come through a pretty intense election process."

Tester sees his first year as full of accomplishment, learning and some frustration. He rattles off legislation he helped pass and issues that remain. With some experience now, he plans to handle certain things differently but believes his efforts made a difference.

"Every day isn't a diamond," he said. "Some days are pretty doggone frustrating. But that's the way it is on the farm, that's the same way it is for anybody. … The truth is that the work that we're doing in Washington D.C., every day, and the work that my staff does every day, both in the state and in D.C., is critically important."

Tester's first challenges were to hire aides, open a Washington office and eight state offices and start helping constituents.

"We have invested an incredible amount of time and effort, I think, in making sure we got the right staff and making sure that we're being as ethically sound as we can," he said.

Off the bat, he received six committee assignments, an unusually large number. He said he "really enjoys" listening to testimony and questioning witnesses but has found it hard to balance the work since different panels meet at the same time. If there were one thing he could change, he said, it would be the conflicting hearing schedules.

When the next Congress begins in 2009, he will "prune down" his committees.

"It's been a challenge to make sure that I get to as many of those as I can, but you can't get to all of them," he said. "I think six is just simply too many. … Every one of those committees is a great committee. I'm going to hate to give any of them up. But the truth is, it creates a big workload."

Freshmen senators also are required to preside over Senate floor proceedings. About a month ago, Tester won a Golden Gavel award for logging more than 100 hours.

"It takes a lot of time, it's also an opportunity to see how the Senate works, and it's a great honor to do it, there's no doubt about that, to watch the Robert Byrds and others on the floor is truly, it's a pretty special experience," he said.

He had known but still found somewhat surprising that the chamber is often mostly empty when senators give speeches on the floor.

"In Montana, the legislative process – this is maybe more true in the last session than any – but it's kind of like hand-to-hand combat," he said. "It's right there, and if you get up and say something and somebody disagrees with it, they can challenge you on it right there. I kind of like that."

The level of partisanship has been his biggest frustration. He noted the record number of filibusters this year.

"We're doing way too much debating whether to debate rather than vote," he said. "And I guess that's probably more disappointing than anything."

He says the Democratic leaders has not pressured him to support their views.

"On occasion I get asked, 'Well, do the Democrats tell you how to vote and all that?' " he said. "Never once. Never once have they told me how to vote. I think that speaks well for them."

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Traveling back and forth to Washington hasn't been as bad as Tester thought it would be.

"It's always good to get back to Montana, it's always good to visit with the folks about the issues they're concerned about; I think it helps keep a person grounded," he said. "This isn't a negative thing, it's just a fact: Life in D.C. is pretty artificial, and life (in Montana) is pretty real. So it brings that reality back into your perspective."

On weekends, he mostly travels the state, but he tries to get to his farm as much as possible.

"Right now we truly have a family operation because when I need some help my brother comes out and the kids are still working on making a transition out here, it's all hands on deck at this point in time," he said.

Tester said the farm has "been fine" financially and that they're lucky because there's high demand for agriculture products.

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Early on, Tester seemed frustrated by the slow pace of the Senate, especially compared with the Montana Legislature.

"The pace is very deliberative," he said. "But if you take a look and see what we've all got done in the last year, maybe the pace wasn't as slow as I thought it was while you're in the middle of it. … It does give a senator the opportunity to more thoroughly understand the legislation we're working on, so I think that's positive."

Despite public perception, what Congress accomplished this year is "pretty remarkable," he says. Congress passed two budgets, since it had adjourned last year without finishing its spending bills. Although the appropriations process caused "a few fingers chewed and a few sleepless nights," he was happy with how it worked out and the money that was put in for Montana.

He also praised bills passed to make higher education more affordable, raise auto fuel efficiency standards and boost geothermal energy production, raise the minimum wage and lower taxes for small business, and implement recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. Although the Farm Bill has not yet been completed, Tester said it will "work very, very well for production agriculture."

"My camelina crop insurance legislation made it in the Farm Bill, and not being on the ag committee, I think that's good work," he said.

He became the first senator to post his daily schedule online and noted that he and the other freshmen senators pushed their leadership to pass an ethics bill early on. He also supported increasing funding for veterans, helped break a logjam holding up construction of a veterans cemetery in Missoula and pushed increased mileage reimbursement rates for disabled veterans.

As for next year, he said the Banking Committee may be his busiest panel, given the state of the financial industry. An Indian health care act needs to be renewed, and he awaits a report on northern border security.

"No two days have been the same," he said.