Continental Divides

Montana Real-life Drama Upstages ‘Yellowstone’

Zinke on the debt-ceiling showdown, GOP supermajority in Helena and this country’s infatuation with everything Montana

By John McCaslin

One Montana Republican who presumably won’t be throwing his cowboy hat into the ring of contenders aiming for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s prized seat in 2024 is Rep. Ryan Zinke.

The Whitefish lawmaker confirms as much during a lengthy interview that segues from the debt-ceiling showdown in Washington and GOP supermajority in Helena to this country’s incessant infatuation with everything Montana.

Most notably, of late, the muzzling of trans lawmaker Zooey Zephyr, and following closely on her heels the New York Times expose on Flathead Valley’s Regier family, who from their three elective posts in Helena are supposedly “spearheading” Montana’s lurch to the right.

“It’s interesting, because a lot of the nation views Montana through the lens of [the TV series] ‘Yellowstone.’ Look, ‘Yellowstone’ is a drama that’s set in Montana. It’s just like ‘Star Wars’ is a drama that’s set in space,” Zinke reflects.

“I think ordinarily stories like that wouldn’t get as much play [elsewhere], but there tends to be this aura about Montana, there’s a fascination about Montana. So for good or bad, our actions in a little state House in Helena will make national news.”

As a state senator from 2009 to 2013, Zinke witnessed first-hand the pivotal beginning of Montana’s extreme rightward lunge. In the short span between two legislative sessions, the state House shifted from 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans in 2009 to 68 Republicans and 32 Democrats in 2011 — the exact ratio as today, alongside 34 Republicans and 16 Democrats in the Senate.

Hence the much-ballyhooed GOP “supermajority,” albeit one that when left unchecked presents incalculable risks to both political parties, not to mention Montana’s constitution and way of life.

“Overall, when you have a supermajority you also have to bear in mind that you not only represent the people that voted for you, but you represent the people that don’t vote for you. And that’s what a representative is,” asserts Zinke, all but echoing the “self-restraint” warning that former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot issued recently to fellow Republicans.

Which isn’t to say the 2023 legislative session overall wasn’t deemed a success, with achievements even made by the minority side.

“I thought they did the right thing on taxes, they gave back the money from where it came,” notes Zinke, whose top priority these days on Capitol Hill is curtailing federal spending.

A member of the influential House Appropriations Committee, which is tasked with regulating all expenditures of money by the U.S. government, Zinke concedes that “both parties have been guilty” of creating the nation’s massive budget deficit.

Take former President Donald Trump, who pledged to “get rid” of the national debt, yet on his watch it grew a whopping 40 percent — $7.8 trillion — the third biggest deficit increase in proportion to the economy under any U.S. president (George W. Bush and Abraham Lincoln were fighting wars).

Even in recent days we saw President Joe Biden, amid a looming debt-ceiling catastrophe, try to push back on much-needed spending cuts. Which makes it all the more dishonest to be pointing partisan fingers.

“It’s kind of like giving your kids the credit card,” Zinke describes. “We gave the government a credit card and they charged it up. Matter of fact, they went over the limit. So what you’d do as a parent and Congress, you take the credit card away, and then you put actions in place so it doesn’t happen again.

“And that’s exactly what we did,” the retired Navy SEAL commander and former Interior secretary under Trump tells me. “You know, from a Navy position it’s kinda like putting a harpoon in Moby Dick’s back. I mean that harpoon is deep. You can wiggle it around a little … but we are saving money and we’re putting some processes in [place] that I think provide more accountability and transparency. That’s what Congress should have: the power of the purse.”

Handed the power to rein in decades of carefree spending, Zinke continues, is more valuable at this juncture than running for a U.S. Senate seat (I’ll write in another column about retired Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, CEO of Montana-based Bridger Aerospace, who as we speak is being groomed by top Republicans to challenge Tester. Zinke expresses deep respect and admiration for Sheehy, actually pinning the prospective candidate’s Purple Heart medal during a 2015 ceremony at Fort Harrison).

“We’re looking at the [potential] field,” the congressman says, “but honest to God I am also concentrated on Appropriations, because I was elected to this job and [it] needs full attention.”

Plus, he says, with additional subcommittee assignments on Veterans Affairs, Transportation and Housing, and Interior and the Environment, “as far as Montana goes I’m in a good position to make sure our interests in the state are well served.”

Otherwise, might these actually be olive branches extended for once across the political aisle on Capitol Hill?

There was “way too much hatred on both sides of the aisle,” concedes Zinke, who partly blames months of COVID-19 lockdowns that confined members to offices and home districts.

“It’s hard to hate close up,” he explains. “When you don’t have an opportunity to meet — meet other members on either side of the aisle — the institution suffers …

“I’m seeing, as of late, regardless of what the media hype is, I’m seeing the tone in the committees is much more cordial. I would say professional — a little more American.”

Note: Flathead residents planning to visit Capitol Hill are hereby invited to “Montana Coffee” with the state’s four congressional members: Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Reps. Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale. “We do ’em every Wednesday at 8:15,” Zinke confirms. “I think we’re the only delegation that does, and quite frankly it’s the right thing to do. I mean if Montanans are gonna come all the way out to Washington, DC, at least the members can carve off an hour of their day to greet them. I think that’s a good thing.”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author