Tester still frustrated that D.C. is ‘all screwed up’

Editor’s note: As part of the Gazette State Bureau’s coverage of the high-profile U.S. Senate race between Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and incumbent Democrat Jon Tester, reporter Mike Dennison spent time last month in Washington, D.C., with each candidate. Today’s story examines Tester on the job; a story last week focused on Rehberg.

WASHINGTON — As the work day dawns in the nation’s capital, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is at his desk in an office that overlooks the city from the seventh floor of the Hart Senate Office Building.

“People ask me how things are going,” he says. “I say, ‘Hey, things are going great at the farm, I feel great, the family’s great, things are fine everywhere — except here. It’s here that it’s all screwed up.”

“Here” is Washington, D.C., and, more specifically, the halls of Congress, where Tester has spent the past five years working as Montana’s junior senator.

Now, the freshman Democrat is locked in a re-election battle against Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg that’s not only close, but also could decide party control of the U.S. Senate.

Tester, the farmer from Big Sandy with his signature flat-top haircut and two-fingered left hand, is comfortable and relaxed as he moves from constituent meetings to interviews to hearings, often stopping to jaw with anyone and everyone, from military brass to high school kids from Montana.

Yet an hour rarely passes without Tester expressing frustration with the ways of Washington, and how the politics of the moment seem to prevent Congress from tackling the nation’s pressing problems.

“There’s no sense of urgency to get things done,” he says. “It’s not like the Montana Legislature, where we have 90 days, and if you didn’t get the work done, people would rip your head off.”

His disappointment is usually directed at Republicans in the U.S. House, saying he can’t understand why they’d stubbornly stand in the way of things like a new highway-funding bill or raising the debt ceiling last August to pay the nation’s bills.

“When I got home last (August) and sat on the combine, I couldn’t believe that (they were saying) we’re going to spend the money, but not pay the bills. What would happen if I don’t pay the interest that’s due on my land?

“They’d repossess it and take it away. The issue was whether you pay the debt. … You don’t do it by doing silly stuff like that.”

Still, Tester, 55, is fighting to return for a second term — and the race is never far from the surface, as he goes about his business in Washington on this pleasant spring day in late March.

At a Q-and-A with more than 100 Montana high school students in a Hart Building auditorium, one of the first student questions is: “How do you feel about being challenged by Denny Rehberg?”

“Well, it’s going to be a fun election,” says Tester, grinning. “That’s what it’s all about. We’re the No. 1-targeted seat in the country. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

When fielding a later question on solving the nation’s deficit, Tester says the first thing Congress must do “is start working together — we’ve got to stop being Democrats and Republicans and be Americans.”

The student gathering is one of a half-dozen meetings that Tester has with constituents this day, starting with the weekly “Montana constituents coffee” that he has jointly with Montana’s other senator, Democrat Max Baucus.

Nearly 100 people, from lobbyists to vacationing families, gather in the Senate Finance Committee meeting room for coffee, juice and doughnuts — and a chance to chat with Tester and Baucus, who glide through the crowd and seem to know at least every other person.

The event ends with visitors lining up for a photograph with Tester and Baucus, snapped by a Senate staff photographer. As people wait their turn, young office staffers take names and note what each person is wearing, so they can identify them in the photograph and make sure each gets a mailed copy, signed by both senators.

During this day, Tester also will meet folks from Intermountain Opera in Bozeman, introduce a Frenchtown pharmacist who’s talking about telemedicine, huddle with Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy outside a committee hearing, and talk to senior-citizen advocates via the video-conferencing program Skype.

“Do you want me to talk, or should I listen?” Tester asks the senior advocates. “It’s never a dull moment here.”

After wrapping up the Skype session, Tester sits down for a 15-minute lunch at a small table in his office, munching on a salad and pita-bread chicken taco from the building’s basement cafeteria.

Minutes later, Tester is in the Senate’s multimillion-dollar media center, donning headphones as he sits down for his monthly interview session with reporters from Montana’s smaller newspapers and radio stations. A control-room staffer says that Tester is one of only a few senators who routinely hold such sessions.

He fields questions about oil-and-gas development, the controversy over the Montana veterans hospital director at Fort Harrison, the Keystone XL Pipeline, health care reform and, of course, the campaign.

“I think the key issue (in the campaign) is … accountability and responsible decision-making,” he tells a reporter. “I would hope at some time we could start comparing records instead of all this garbage you see on TV that is demonstrably false.”

Back in his office, Tester pauses to talk about why he does what he does, saying Congress is a place that he believes can help solve the nation’s problems and create a better life for people back home.

“This is all about an ability, not only to get good policy passed, but also to be a facilitator,” he says.

It’s not about personal perks or benefits, and doesn’t come with lifetime health care or fat pensions, despite what many in the public think, he adds.

“When I get out of this job, I’ll go back to the farm,” Tester says, and be just like any other farmer, trying to make it on the income from their land.

Despite the seemingly nonstop interaction with constituents, Tester crams in a pair of Senate subcommittee meetings this day, including one he chairs, the Banking Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic Policy.

At Tester’s request, the subject is the “retirement savings gap,” or, in Tester’s words, a look at the growing concern that millions of Americans aren’t planning for retirement and may be woefully short of the money they’ll need to live on after they have stopped working.

Before the meeting, Tester preps with several staffers in the committee anteroom, a small chamber lined with shelves of law books. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the panel’s ranking Republican, wanders in to use the bathroom, without saying a word.

As with many congressional committee hearings, most panel members don’t bother to attend. Tester is the only member at the raised, rounded table when he gavels the panel to order, and Vitter soon joins him.

Three financial experts testify, rolling out sobering figures on how Americans aren’t saving enough, don’t know enough about their options or don’t have easy access to retirement accounts.

“A majority of working adults do not participate in any private retirement plan,” says Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation. “The lowest earners are accumulating very little in assets.”

“Ignorance may be bliss, but I doubt it,” Tester says after the experts complete their opening statements. “How do we get Americans to ask about their retirement systems? … What are the top one to three things you would do, if you were sitting in my chair, to solve this question?”

Tester listens to their proposals, then brings the meeting to a close.

Tester says later that he had read an article on how so many Americans are ill-prepared for retirement, and had his staff work on the issue.

Some bills and ideas are rattling around Congress, such as one to allow pooled retirement plans for small businesses, but nothing has gotten off the ground, he says.

“This is kind of a seed,” he says. “We’re putting it in the ground, and we’ll see if it grows.”

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