Denny Rehberg's always been quick on the draw. But as his race against Sen. Jon Tester heats up, that Quick Draw McGraw attitude could become more a hindrance than a testament to his folksy cowboy persona.
Last week, Congress struck down a Rehberg-proposed amendment requiring the Food and Drug Administration to implement regulations based on "hard science." The appropriations bill rider was a blatant attempt to prevent the FDA from curbing the use of antibiotics in cattle. The FDA recently recommended limiting such doses for fear of increased resistance to antibiotics among beef consumers. Rehberg sided with stockgrowers in questioning the science behind the FDA's recommendation.
Yet Rehberg's language proved so sloppy that it threatened to undercut the FDA's ability to regulate the marketing of tobacco to minors. Critics met Rehberg's amendment with claims that he was pandering to tobacco interests, pointing out that members of the Appropriations Committee he chairs, which approved the rider, collected nearly $290,000 in campaign contributions from the tobacco industry in the last election cycle.
Montana's sole congressman has a long reputation for shooting first and considering political repercussions later.
Take the now-infamous 2010 lawsuit against the Billings Fire Department. Rehberg filed a legal complaint last July alleging firefighters didn't take adequate measures to extinguish a 2008 blaze that torched property he intended to develop. The allegations were a slap in the face to emergency responders, yet Rehberg seemed oblivious to the depth of the controversy he'd created. That same month—in an unrelated move—Rehberg voted against a bill to provide billions of dollars for New York City rescue workers exposed to toxins after the 9/11 terrorist attack.
More recently, Rehberg went on Blog Talk Radio to advocate funding cuts to Pell Grants. Once again he came off more callous than cowboy, quipping that the poverty-based grant program was "turning out to be the welfare of the 21st Century" and insinuating widespread abuses in collegiate financial aid.
This Rehbergian habit of charging ahead without careful study may seem wholly Western, like Theodore Roosevelt on San Juan Hill. But it's politically reckless. That might explain why Rehberg himself agreed to strike down the FDA-aimed rider—though not before vowing to return with a different approach.