The new year kicked off with new responsibility for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who announced last week he had been appointed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to the powerful Appropriations Committee, which oversees federal spending and budget bills. The move fulfills a longtime promise made by Senate Democrats during Tester’s successful 2006 campaign against incumbent Republican Conrad Burns, a race where experience and seniority were key issues. It’s also a committee appointment highly coveted by other senators.
“For a second year senator it’s pretty remarkable, and I don’t say that to my buddies on the floor because there’s a few of them who wanted it,” Tester said last week on a conference call.
A seat on the Appropriations Committee will also give Montana greater clout when it comes to drawing up a massive economic stimulus package that, by some estimates, could approach $1 trillion in scope. Tester said his goal would be to ensure a fair proportion of funds went to rural states like Montana for projects to “rebuild the economy from the ground up.”
“My focus is on infrastructure more than anything else,” he said. “We need to get merit-based projects that make sense.”
But his appointment to Appropriations comes at a time when part of what makes a seat on the committee so desirable – increased leverage to direct funds back to a senator’s home state – is exactly the kind of legislative maneuvering Congress is attempting to push back against with a newfound aversion to so-called “pork barrel spending.” Tester acknowledged this, and also pointed out that once the stimulus packages work their way through Congress, there wasn’t likely to be much spending anyway.
“By some perspectives, this is the worst time to be on the Appropriations Committee,” Tester said. “We don’t have a lot of dough laying around out here.”
Tester pledged the stimulus packages would be composed with much greater transparency and accountability than in the past. He also noted, “one person’s pork is another person’s crucial project.” During his visit to the state Legislature earlier this month, Tester said many state lawmakers urged him to fight against pork as the federal stimulus plan is debated, yet in the same breath inquired about the feasibility of much-needed road improvement projects requested for their home districts.
It was too early to tell whether specific local infrastructure projects, like the Kalispell Bypass or Going-to-the-Sun Road reconstruction would receive funding, though he did anticipate increased funding for the National Park Service, an agency that has been “under-funded miserably for almost 30 years,” he said.
As for other local issues, Tester said he had phone conversations with executives for Glencore AG, the company that owns Columbia Falls Aluminum, as recently as Jan. 14, urging that CFAC and the Bonneville Power Administration meet to renegotiate energy rates. A recent U.S. Circuit Court decision resulted in increased electricity rates for CFAC, and that factor, along with plummeting aluminum prices, was key to CFAC’s decision to close its operation.
Reassuring gun owners, Tester said any plans to implement new gun control measures any time soon were highly unlikely – despite reports from some gun associations that firearms sales have skyrocketed amid anxiety over the new Obama Administration’s stance on guns.
“I have not heard a whimper about gun control in the halls of Congress from anybody,” Tester said. “I really think it is the least of our worries at this point in time.”
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