Our federal representatives wield significant powers above and beyond voting on legislation. Through House and Senate committees, for example, members of Congress may subpoena witnesses and otherwise investigate matters of their own choosing. They can uncover injustice and corruption, craft wise legislation and educate Congress and the nation. However, as Sen. Joe McCarthy taught us just 40 years ago, the power of office can also be used to undermine democracy.
On May 17 and 19, freshman U.S. Rep. Rick Hill (R-MT) co-chaired congressional field hearings with Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) in Wallace, Idaho, and Kalispell, Mont. The hearings of the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health addressed some of the hottest issues concerning Western national forests: the exploding use of national forest trails by snowmobiles, motorcycles and ATVs, and the maintenance or closure of old logging roads.
Although U.S. Forest Service polls show that 70 percent of Montanans who use our national forests are opposed to increased motorized access, Chenoweth and Hill did not arrange for a single horseman, hunter, hiker, skier or other non-motorized representative to testify in Wallace. Although roads are a major source of stream sedimentation and fragment wildlife habitat, no biologists testified.
Instead, in addition to Forest Service employees who were invited in order to be intimidated, the hearing roster read like a Who’s Who of off-road vehicle clubs. At the close of the hearing, members of the general public were allowed to testify for four minutes each--four people stepped forward, including myself and another conservationist. Seven hours of what Chenoweth called an "open and honest debate" contained only eight minutes of testimony from those who disagree with Chenoweth and Hill.
The Kalispell hearing was similarly stacked, until, learning of the hearing a bare week ahead of time, the Montana Wilderness Association’s criticism forced Hill to invite a few non-motorized representatives. At the hearing, Chenoweth attempted to discredit two of the three conservationists who testified, by questioning their personal backgrounds rather than their testimony or views.
When Dale Harms of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service testified that increased road density negatively impacts grizzly bears, Rep. Chenoweth derisively told him that a protective mother grizzly would "fight Hell with a squirt gun," and, accordingly, any biologist who thinks roads degrade grizzly habitat "believes in Easter bunnies."
Chenoweth’s and Hill’s supporters, on the other hand, were welcomed unquestioningly. Mark Pollot, for example, attorney-guru to the so-called private property rights movement, said that Forest Service employees learned from the successful prosecution of Nazis at the Nuremburg trials not to keep self-incriminating evidence of their crimes, and now purge evidence of wrongs against citizens from their files. Chenoweth and Hill thanked Pollot effusively for his time.
Helen Chenoweth makes no secret of her dislike for our constitutionally-chartered government. In 1995, she introduced legislation to subordinate federal law enforcement officers to county sheriffs, a la the Posse Comitatus. She suggested that the Oklahoma City bombing might be the result of the government "pushing people too far." And at a congressional hearing, she advanced an idea that militias have pushed, namely that imaginary "black helicopters" are tools of the tyrannical federal government.
With her own subcommittee, and the support of Rick Hill, Chenoweth is not a harmless fluke--and neither is Hill. Between them, Hill and Chenoweth represent most of the country between the Dakotas and Oregon, and they demonstrated at Wallace and Kalispell that they understand how to use the power of their offices. They also demonstrated that they do not honor the democracy they were elected to uphold.
Even if you agree with Chenoweth and Hill on this issue, think about Chenoweth and Hill’s methods, and ask yourself a simple question: If it’s the conservationists who are being harassed and censored by our representatives now, who’s next?
John Adams is a graduate student at the University of Montana and was a legislative assistant to former U.S. Rep. Tom Barlow (D-KY).