Tester profile

CQ Politics in America

by Ben Weyl

A favorite Tester saying on the campaign trail was that he wanted to make Washington a little bit more like Montana, and that spirit animates his agenda on process issues, where he tries to increase government transparency, and on domestic policy, where he espouses a desire to aid rural America.

Tester posts his daily public schedule on his website, listing all appointments and activities. He also prohibits gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists to him or his staff, and bars any staff member who becomes a lobbyist from ever lobbying him or being rehired. Tester has introduced legislation to require federal agencies to post all public documents and records in a searchable online clearinghouse and cosponsored a bill to forbid members of Congress from ever working as lobbyists.

“Anytime you can shine sunlight and add more disclosure in government, the better the government works,” he said.

Combining his focus on open government with his spot on the Appropriations Committee, Tester is a cosponsor of legislation that would create an online, searchable database of all earmarks, the congressionally directed funding for special projects.

Tester projects an image of a Western moderate, but he generally votes with his party — 92 percent of the time in 2009 on votes that divided a majority of Democrats from a majority of Republicans.

During debate on President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus measure, Tester showed up with a photo of a Montanan holding a sign reading “Work Needed,” and he blasted opposition to the recovery package. “You’re either for jobs or you’re against jobs,” he said. “Now some D.C. politicians say we don’t need to pass a jobs bill because the current recession is only temporary. I ask you to tell that to this guy standing on the street in Whitefish, Montana.”

Tester later introduced legislation intended to give small businesses in Montana a better shot at federal contracts and says his approach to government is based not on ideology or party but on how policies affect rural Americans.

“I look at it through the set of eyes that live on that farm,” he says, pointing to the picture of his family farm that hangs prominently in his office. “I’m a Montana senator, but I also take into consideration policies as they impact America, but particularly rural America. That trumps everything.”

In the closing days of the 110th Congress (2007-08), Tester opposed legislation that provided $700 billion in assistance to the financial services sector. He said it didn’t “require the common-sense regulations needed to prevent this mess from happening again.” He also balked at loans to struggling U.S. automakers, criticizing Detroit for not coming up with a credible business plan to escape bankruptcy.

In doing so, Tester — a burly third-generation Montana farmer who strides through the Capitol in cowboy boots and a 1950s-style flat-top haircut — helped further burnish his populist credentials. “You need to empower people. If empowering people is what a populist is, then that’s what I am,” he said.

Tester, who names President Theodore Roosevelt as a political role model, says Western Democrats, like Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, have thrived in recent years “because we have a message that folks can believe in,” which includes “making sure that we can have a health care system where you can afford to get sick, and you’re not losing the farm that’s been in the family for generations because you’re unlucky enough to get a catastrophic illness.”

Tester, a member of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, won adoption of an amendment to the financial industry overhaul to direct the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to charge banks premiums based on the risk of their activity. According to Tester, community banks currently pay 30 percent of all FDIC premiums while holding only 20 percent of the nation’s banking assets. “These are the banks that make rural America run,” Tester said on the Senate floor. “They don’t deserve to be left holding the bag for risky behavior of the big banks.”

He also won’t budge on the issue of gun rights. He signed a brief in 2008 asking the Supreme Court to overturn the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns, which the court eventually did, and partnered with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in 2010 on legislation, backed by the National Rifle Association, to repeal other firearm restrictions in the district.

Tester uses his seat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee to help his state’s relatively large veteran population (roughly one in nine Montanans). He sponsored 2007 legislation, which was signed into law, to increase the mileage reimbursement rate for veterans traveling to Veterans Affairs Department health clinics, a big issue in a state as spread out as Montana. He also has worked to set up more VA clinics around the state and to establish a program where organizations operate “Vet Vans,” which transport disabled veterans from their homes to VA facilities.

“Statistics show that veterans who live in rural areas don’t live as long [as] in urban areas. That’s because of access to health care,” Tester says. “I’m very proud of the work we’ve done for veterans, and we’ve done a lot.”

Another of Tester’s priorities is legislation to overhaul forest management in Montana, which he says would reduce the risk of wildfires, create jobs, protect clean water and set aside land for recreation and hunting. He calls the bill “a Montana-made solution” because the state’s different stakeholders, including loggers and conservationists, got together and worked out a compromise.

Tester also sits on the Indian Affairs Committee. He introduced legislation in the 110th Congress to finalize a water rights agreement among the Crow Nation, Montana and the federal government; the bill stalled after clearing the committee.

His other committee assignment is Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, where he has sought to raise the profile of northern border security.

Growing up on an 1,800-acre farm near Big Sandy, Tester and his brothers were put to work at an early age. The labor came at a price. Grinding meat as a child, he severed three fingers on his left hand. But Tester relishes farm work nonetheless, calling the long rides on his tractor during breaks back home ideal times to think through the issues facing Congress.

He had an early interest in politics and got involved in student government during high school. After graduating from college, he taught music for a couple of years at his hometown elementary school (“I like everybody from Dvorák to the Dixie Chicks,” he says). He gave up teaching to concentrate on the farm, where the family also operated a custom butcher shop his parents had started in the 1960s. They went organic in 1987 and now grow wheat, barley, lentils, peas, millet, buckwheat, alfalfa and hay. In 2007, Tester’s daughter and son-in-law moved back to the farm to run the place in his absence.

Tester served as chairman of the Big Sandy school board and of the local Soil Conservation Service Committee before winning election to the Montana Senate in 1998. He rose to minority whip and minority leader before becoming president of the state Senate in 2005, after Democrats gained control of the chamber. He championed legislation requiring public utilities in the state to use more renewable energy and supported tax credits for companies that generate wind power in the state.

Facing term limits, Tester entered the 2006 Senate race. He trounced state Auditor John Morrison, a better-known, better-funded candidate backed by the Democratic establishment. Morrison was leading in initial polls but lost support following revelations of an affair. In November, Tester beat the incumbent Republican, Conrad Burns, by less than 1 percentage point, taking just under 50 percent of the vote.