David Crisp: Mending government starts here


Sen. Jon Tester at a Small Business Opportunity Workshop in Great Falls.

Ten years after he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Jon Tester, D-Mont., still continues to farm near his home in Big Sandy. It isn’t about the money.

“One of the reasons I still farm is because I go home and can get things done,” Tester said during a telephone town hall last week. In Washington, D.C., not so much.


David Crisp

The town hall was supposed to be about issues of concern to seniors, but it quickly drifted into constituents’ concerns about Congress’ inability to enact meaningful legislation.

Tester did his best to put minds at ease about Social Security, which he said is on solid financial footing until 2035, and about healthcare. But he couldn’t do much to alleviate concerns about Congress.

Congress is unlikely to approve, or even hold hearings on, President Obama’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Needed reforms of the Affordable Care Act are unlikely to get past the Republican-controlled Congress, which seems interested only in repeal.

“I honestly don’t think anything’s going to happen,” he said.

Campaign finance reform, which Tester says is needed to fix Congress, also is unlikely. He blames the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision for many of America’s troubles.

“It really does put democracy at risk,” he said.

For example, he noted that Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, a senator he respects and has worked with on bipartisan legislation, was initially open to holding hearings on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. But after opposition arose from the Judicial Crisis Network and the Tea Party Patriots, both funded in part by the Kansas-born Koch Brothers, Moran withdrew his support.

Tester was perhaps too much of a statesman to point out that his Montana colleague in the Senate, Steve Daines, also opposes Supreme Court hearings for any Obama nominee to the highest court. Daines is still willing, apparently, to cash his government paycheck.

Tester could have gone on. Among its failings, Congress is filling federal judge positions at the slowest rate in 50 years. According to the Huffington Post, federal courts are short 78 judges, including 14 waiting for a confirmation vote and 32 waiting for a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

The last Senate vote to confirm a judicial nominee came on Monday. Despite having the support of the U.S. senators from his state, both Republicans, and despite eventually winning approval by a 92-0 vote, Waverly Crenshaw had to wait almost a year and a half for Congress to act on his nomination.

The beat goes on, just barely. The Republican-inspired Benghazi investigation has lasted more than 700 days. That’s longer, according to blogger Steve Benen, “than the investigations into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Iran-Contra scandal, Church Committee, and the Watergate probe.”

For all their complaints about Obama’s executive order on immigration, members of Congress have been unable to pass countering legislation. For all their complaints that the Obama administration has been a disaster, their only solution appears to be shutting down government altogether.

No doubt there is merit to Tester’s complaint that campaign funding has distorted democracy, but the media have done their part, too. The national media have focused almost exclusively on the presidential race while ignoring the many other races that will be on ballots in November.

Obviously, the presidential race is going to be the top priority for national media, especially so long as there is at least a chance that we will have the most ideologically disparate race in U.S. history: Bernie Sanders vs. Ted Cruz. But when MSNBC literally devotes more air time to news that John Kasich ate a pizza with a fork than to every other political race in the country combined, then something has gone seriously wrong.

Here is one imperfect example. In the Wisconsin vote on April 5, conservative Rebecca Bradley was elected to the state Supreme Court. According to exit polls, reports Gary Legum, more than 20 percent of Bernie Sanders’ voters either voted for Bradley or did not vote at all in the judicial race. That apparently was enough to give her the votes she needed.

Now, I have no idea whether Bradley is a good choice for Wisconsin’s highest court. It’s true that she wrote some dumb things in college, but the list of people who wrote dumb things in college is approximately equal to the list of people who attended college. I am pretty sure that most people who think Sanders would be a good president also would think that Bradley would be a bad judge, if they weren’t too ignorant to know better.

It’s been said many times, but it bears repeating: The vote you cast for president is the least important vote you make. Even in a year when neither party has picked a candidate by the time of the Montana primary, the chance that your individual vote will determine the winner rises only from one in hundreds of millions to one in millions.

But at the same time, critical votes down the ballot will determine who holds thousands of elected jobs from county auditor to U.S. senator all across the country. Tester won his seat in 2006 by just 3,562 votes. In that race, your vote had some heft.

So when you hear people saying they will sit at home on Election Day if they don’t like the presidential candidates, tell them they are paving the way for two more years of incompetent, self-serving, dysfunctional government.

That’s more polite than telling them they are idiots.

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