Two weeks ago (June 22), I posted a short story about Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) getting ready to test the political waters on the Wilderness issue. I based the story mainly on background noise from key stakeholders who have been left out of the process, which is most of us. All were rightfully angry, as they should be, that Senator Tester wouldn’t involve them in the process of developing this significant legislation. At the time, I tried to get any details about the upcoming legislation from Tester’s office or green groups working on it, but all refused to say anything except that introduction was imminent.
This Monday (July 6), Associated Press writer Matt Gouras wrote an excellent article highlighting the same point–a Wilderness bill coming soon, but refusals by Tester’s staff and green group insiders to give any details on what might be in it.
Wilderness and forest management are huge issues for most Montanans, and I’m delighted to see Senator Tester finally start to think about fulfilling his campaign promise to protect Montana’s roadless lands, but this secretive, exclusive process of developing this major legislation is embarrassing.
As I write this, a privileged few from major green groups and the wood products industry are basically drafting this legislation, and our junior Senator considers the rest of us have-nots, telling constituents–and the media–to wait for the press conference. Instead of carefully keeping his thumb on it, Tester should be facilitating a public process on what direction the legislation should take.
In response to this criticism, Tester’s staff says introducing the bill is only the beginning of the process and the public will have time and opportunity to provide feedback on the bill. In other words, we can propose amendments to change the bill before it goes to the White House.
That’s true, of course, but it’s much harder to change an existing bill after introduction than before it gets into the Congressional sausage-grinder. Whatever Tester agrees to introduce in the first place will be very close to what he wants or doesn’t want, right? So, from that point on, it makes it’s an uphill battle for his constituency to affect any meaningful change.
Constituents and media requesting copies of the draft legislation are being told to wait for the news release or call the general number and give their views on forest management. How weird is this? Telling people to call in and comment on something they haven’t seen?
Essentially, Senator Tester is saying to his constituents, “As soon as I make my mind up on what I want to do, I’ll be glad to listen to you.”
That seems a bit contrary, to say the least, to Tester’s oft-stated position in support of openness in government. On his official U.S. Senate website, in fact, Tester forcefully states he supports “transparency in government.”
I had to choke on that one after two weeks of trying to find out anything about his plans for Montana’s public lands, which he has made as opaque as possible.
Instead of this closed, backroom process that involves only a handful of tight-lipped insiders, Tester should be willingly sending out copies of the draft legislation or at least a synopsis of what’s going to be in the bill. This would give his entire constituency a chance to at least comment on the general direction of the legislation before the door is mostly closed.
That seems like smart politics, too, sending out trial balloons to get a good read on the buzz the bill will create before it goes into the hopper.
The bill will, apparantly, be based on the controversial Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership. That might be good or bad, depending on your politics, but it’s certainly indicative of the attitude we see coming out of Tester’s office. After a series of meetings with local governing bodies, nonprofits and industry groups, a half-dozen people secretly drafted the BDP–and then refused to make any change in it once drafted. Now, it seems, the same goes with the drafting of this major legislation.
So, Senator Tester, let’s have a little “transparency in government.” You can start by stepping into the backroom and demand an immediate halt to this humiliating charade.
Footnote: At about the same time I was writing this commentary, Matt Gouras was distributing another article on Tester’s secret wilderness bill. Click here to read it.