It's the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Trees are up and lights are twinkling to fend off the darkness, as gifts are exchanged to bring cheer in this holiday season. But there won't be one gift for the small band of collaborators who support Senator Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. That rider was struck from the bill to fund the federal government, and it's unlikely to see the light of day again. On the other hand, for many, and for reasons beyond partisan politics, that's something to celebrate.
The story is long and ugly. Way back when Republican Conrad Burns was Montana's junior U.S. senator, a handful of people from a few conservation groups decided they needed to find some way to pass a new wilderness bill for Montana. Montana's senior senator, Max Baucus, a Democrat, was in a great position to do it, but he was too timid to wade into the contentious wilderness debate.
It's customary in Congress that before any state wilderness measure is passed, the delegation from that state must agree on it. So the die was cast for Burns, who had ridden into office thanks in part to President Ronald Reagan's pocket veto of a 1988 wilderness bill that had successfully passed both houses of Congress. Reagan vetoed it in order to defeat incumbent Democratic Senator John Melcher, by showing the power Burns carried with a sitting president while still a candidate. It worked.
Knowing that the chance of Burns losing his seat would be almost non-existent, since incumbent U.S. senators typically have the money, connections and power they need to stay in office, the small band of collaborators set out to devise a wilderness bill that could satisfy Burns. To get even some slivers of new wilderness, the conservationists decided they needed to give up swaths of forested lands to the timber industry, give up roadless areas to destruction by all-terrain vehicles and even give away Wilderness Study Areas that were protected by the visionary Wilderness Study Act of 1977, which had been sponsored by Montana's great Democratic senator and wilderness supporter, Lee Metcalf. And so the first incarnation of what would become the basis for Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act was born as the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership.
But then the unexpected happened. Somehow, Jon Tester, a state senator, unseated Conrad Burns in the 2006 elections by a hair-thin margin of 3,000 votes. Many would say those votes came from supporters of Paul Richards, a candidate in the Democratic primary who dropped out of the race only days before the election and urged his supporters to vote for Tester in both the primary and the general election. Richards did so based on a meeting with Tester to get his personal assurance that all roadless lands would be protected and that no significant natural-resource legislation would be attempted as a rider on unrelated bills. Tester promised Richards it would be so.
Shortly after Tester's victory, the conservationists presented him with the agreement they had reached "collaboratively" with a few small timber mill owners that, among other things, contained mandated levels of timber harvests from national forests—just as the housing market collapsed and the demand for timber vanished.
Up to this time, the general public had been excluded from the collaboration and remained so up until the time Tester dropped his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act in the hopper. A measure designed to please a Republican senator and Republican president was now embraced and defended by a Democratic senator under a Democratic president.
The way legislation is supposed to work in Congress is that a bill is introduced in either the Senate or House while a similar measure is introduced in the other chamber. There are public hearings in both chambers. If both bills pass, Congress irons out the differences and sends the reconciled bill to the president.
But that didn't happen with Tester's bill. Instead, thanks to the public land giveaways and the dangerous precedent of congressionally mandated harvest levels on national forest lands, Tester's bill never made it out of committee. No companion bill was introduced in the House.
So Jon Tester broke his promise to Richards and tried to slip his measure through Congress by attaching it as a rider to an unrelated "must pass" funding bill. Ironically, one of Tester's most damaging attacks against Burns during his campaign was for using riders to pass significant legislation.
Last Christmas, Tester tried to slip his rider by Congress on an end-of-year government funding measure, but failed. This year, he did the same thing and failed again. Democrats are quick to blame Republican U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg for that failure, but the measure deserved to fail, both for its ramifications and the way its passage was attempted.
As the campaign for Tester's seat garners national attention, it looks like the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which didn't even have the guts to mention "wilderness" in the title, is kaput. There's no chance House Republicans will pass it.
Perhaps this is karma from Tester's broken promise to a fellow candidate whose supporters' votes helped give Tester his win. Or maybe the spirit of Lee Metcalf is saying, "Hands off my wilderness study areas." But one thing seems certain: The collaborators will get no Christmas present this year, and likely none in the foreseeable future.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.