Montana Voices: Tester, Zinke and the end of history

David Crisp

Facts no longer matter in politics. If facts are history, then history no longer matters either, judging from recent incidents involving one current and one former Montana member of Congress.

In a telephone town hall meeting last week, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was fending off complaints by callers who wanted to know why he opposed a Republican tax cut bill.

“I’ll fight until I’ve got no fingers left,” Tester said. “And I’m already a third of the way there.”

Tester, who lost three fingers in a meat grinder accident at age 9, made the loyal Democrat case:

♦ Tax cuts for middle-income taxpayers are temporary, while corporate tax cuts are permanent.

♦ The bill would add at least $1.5 trillion, and perhaps as much as $2.2 trillion, to the national debt at a time when the nation’s infrastructure needs are growing. “I don’t know how we’re going to get money for that,” Tester said.

♦ The bill would cut $20 billion from Medicare. Next on Republicans’ agenda is “reforming” Medicare, which Tester characterized as “cut, gut and slash.”

♦ Millions of people could lose health insurance, and healthcare costs could increase 10 percent.

♦ The entire process was “horrible,” with no real public hearings, no input from Democrats and no time to even read, much less analyze, the final bill before having to vote. He said his request to help write the bill got no response.

Tester became a viral sensation when he appeared in a video holding up a copy of the 479-page Senate version of the bill, which he said he received only 25 minutes before the vote and which included hand-written changes to the text. It was a staged moment, of course, but the disgust on his face looked genuine.

Near the end of the hour-long town hall, a caller unloaded the full litany of Republican complaints about Democratic governance, including the observation that Democrats weren’t so worried about the national debt when Barack Obama was president.

Tester pointed out that Obama took office during the greatest recession since the Great Depression. The stock market, car companies, real estate and finance all appeared to be on the verge of collapse, and unemployment was skyrocketing.

Tester didn’t use this term, but what he meant was that Obama had acted like a good Keynesian. Economist John Maynard Keynes is credited with the theory that when the economy is hurting, Congress should use deficit spending to prime the economic pump. When times are good, budget surpluses should pay down that debt.

America operated on that theory from Franklin Roosevelt until about 1981 when Ronald Reagan took office. Some economists have noted that even though Reagan was no fan of Keynes’ theory, he actually functioned as a pretty good Keynesian. He helped revive a faltering economy with tax cuts, then raised taxes when deficits soared.

Tax increases continued under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and the budget came into balance as the economy boomed in the 1990s. But so poisoned had the political atmosphere become that when Obama tried to push through his stimulus package, not a single Republican House member voted for it and only three Republican senators did.

Now, with the economy in recovery, Keynes’ theory says we should be balancing the budget. But Republicans are voting for higher deficits. It was as if Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century, had never lived.

Keynes isn’t the only rigorous thinker whose ideas have been summarily discarded. President Trump, who blasted job growth under Obama, now touts as historic achievements job increases that actually lag behind Obama’s. Trump also rejects climate change, a politically convenient position that some-time Montanan Ryan Zinke seems to have embraced.

The Hill reported last week that Zinke, now secretary of the Interior, reprimanded the superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park for tweeting about climate change. One source told the Hill that Superintendent David Smith “got a trip to the woodshed” for the offense of pointing out what 97 percent of climate scientists say: The earth is getting warmer, and humans are a major reason.

Actually, that 97 percent figure may be a little low. Every time I hear of a climate change skeptic, I head to the internet. So far, it has always turned out that the skeptic: (1.) knows nothing about climate change; (2.) has been misquoted; or (3.) doesn’t actually dispute that climate change is happening but only how serious a problem it is. Moreover, studies indicate that the more knowledgeable a scientist is about climate, the more likely the scientist believes climate change is real.

An Interior Department official who resigned in October claimed the department had attempted to intimidate him from speaking out about climate change. Joel Clement alleged that Zinke had reassigned him from his position as director of policy analysis to the accounting department to silence his voice.

In his resignation letter, Clement told Zinke, “You and President Trump have waged an all-out assault on the civil service by muzzling scientists and policy experts like myself. You have disrespected the career staff of the Department by questioning their loyalty, and you have played fast and loose with government regulations to score points with your political base at the expense of American health and safety.”

Zinke was once seen as one of Montana’s most environmentally friendly Republicans. As a Montana legislator, he got a co-endorsement from Montana Conservation Voters, and he signed a letter in 2010 asking Obama for stronger climate change legislation. During confirmation hearings for the secretary of the Interior job, he asserted that climate change is no hoax, contradicting one of Trump’s claims.

Hard to tell what he thinks now. Like many Washington officials, he has learned that a short memory is the path to a long career.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and college professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.