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The dumbest debate

Wolf flap illustrates why we don't love Congress

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Somehow it's no surprise that our current Congress is garnering the lowest approval ratings in American history. When 87 percent of citizens across the nation say they think Congress is doing a terrible job, it might be worth thinking about. We have a perfect example of Congressional ineptitude right here in Montana, in the latest debate between Sen. Jon Tester and his 2012 Republican challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg, over who is actually responsible for pulling wolves from the aegis of the Endangered Species Act. Not only is it meaningless, like so much Congressional posturing of the last two years, but it just might be the dumbest political debate Montanans have ever witnessed.

The big picture nationally isn't too hard to figure out. When the Republicans and their Tea Party pals decided to make raising the national debt ceiling the major issue of the year, it was like looking at the horizon and watching it turn black as a monster storm rolled in. And sure enough, it was monstrous, but mostly a tempest in a tea cup as far as substance goes.

The Republicans, who only control one house of Congress, somehow wound up in the driver's seat on national policy as President Obama and his ineffectual Democrats continued to spew "bipartisan cooperation" even as the Republicans wanted nothing more than his head on a platter. Moreover, they were willing to do anything, including bring the nation to the brink of financial ruin, to achieve their goal of discrediting Obama.

No matter which side of the political aisle you were on, the ensuing political theater was disgusting. As the clock ticked down on a historic first-ever default on the national debt, Americans were treated to a series of passion plays that seemed to have little to do with solving the problem and everything to do with elections that were a year and half away. While the Republicans could say nothing but "no," it seemed like Obama and the Democrats could say nothing but "yes" to their increasingly outrageous demands.

The result? Americans now despise both parties and all the politicians involved. And even though the Republicans supposedly came out slightly more despised than the Democrats and Obama, citizens now trust the federal government less than they have ever trusted it before. For the party in power–and that would be the Democrats, with both the White House and the Senate–that's very bad news indeed.

The other result is that the traditional summer recess "town hall meetings" pretty much disappeared after the debt ceiling debacle. One of the reasons given by some members of Congress was the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last summer at an outdoor meet-and-greet. But in truth, Congress knows the public hates them and the last thing they really want to do is deal with that face to face. So they're ignoring rather than listening to and learning from the people they're supposed to represent.

Another tactic, as we've seen here in Montana, is to divert attention from real issues to any number of lesser acts. In the case of Tester and Rehberg, that would be their ridiculous argument over who should receive credit for the Congressional delisting of wolves. Rehberg announced that he and his fellow Republicans were actually responsible for that onerous act, which caused Tester's camp to rise up indignantly, accusing Rehberg of lying, and holding up Tester as the actual propagator of the wolf-killing legislative rider.

What's been lost in the continuing partisan mud-slinging is the actual consequence of the action, no matter who was responsible. Congress decided to override science where endangered species are concerned and declare, by fiat, that a species should lose its protected status because of political pressure from the narrow interests of local hunting and stockgrowing lobbies. It's hard to imagine a less honorable issue over which to beat one's political chest, but there you have it.

As the national backlash mounts against the move, with already-announced boycotts of Montana tourism and Montana products, the essence of the issue becomes clearer. Despite local interests and pressures, wolves remain an iconic symbol of America's dwindling national wilderness. And the "science" of the recovery numbers Tester and Rehberg rely on has recently been debunked in a new study published in Nature and Science titled: "Hunting Wolves in Montana – Where is the Data?"

The essence of the article is straightforward: "Management agencies have claimed that the recovery and public hunting of wolves is based in science. A review of their statistics demonstrated that data collection methods did not follow a scientific protocol, which resulted in flawed and often blatantly incorrect data. Consequently, agencies do not know the total number of wolves in Montana, a major reference point used by wolf managers. Therefore, the quotas proposed for public wolf hunts are completely arbitrary, and management decisions in general have not been based on facts. This has produced a wolf management system that lacks scientific perspective and does not utilize what is known about the wolves' role in sustaining healthy ecosystems. Instead, the data demonstrates that management decisions are often based on opinion and politics." Opinion and politics, not science, is driving the wolf-kills?

The same polls that found the public has reached record levels of discontent with Congress also found that many Americans would vote to replace most, if not all, members of Congress. Given the histrionics of the Tester-Rehberg wolf "debate," that's not hard to believe, as the worst Congress ever continues its sorry show.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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