The Least Productive Congress in 164 Years?

How a Montana senator’s failed attacks on public land help explain congressional dysfunction

Like most GOP lawmakers, Montana’s junior senator, Steve Daines, has been flying high since President Trump’s election. Republican majorities in Congress have provided him with plenty of air space, and, when it comes to public lands issues, the one-time conservationist has banked hard right.

montana mountains
Last December, GOP Senator Steve Daines introduced a largely unpopular bill to remove congressional protections on more than 800,000 acres of public lands in Montana that are currently managed as wilderness study areas. Photo by Bob Wick/BLM.

However, his legislative goals have so far crashed and burned, and these spectacular failures provide an important reminder to lawmakers from both parties that capitalizing on legislative majorities requires less hubris and more humility.

Last year, Daines began working with freshman Congressman Greg Gianforte — a former business partner and fellow multi-millionaire best known for body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs — to remove congressional protections on more than 800,000 acres of public lands currently managed as wilderness study areas (WSAs). He introduced a bill in December, and Gianforte followed with two bills in March that, together, would result in the single biggest rollback of protected public lands in Montana history.

Notably, neither legislator has held public meetings on the bills, and this evasion of public engagement might explain why the legislation is so unpopular.

In May, a University of Montana poll— conducted in part by Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies — found only 11 percent of Montanans support the bills while 81 percent oppose them. Coincidentally, a separate poll, published in June, pegged Sen. Daines approval rating at just 41 percent.

Unfortunately, Daines didn’t pause to consider the possible connections between these numbers before piloting another radical idea.

In June, he wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking the US Forest Service to “re-open” eight airstrips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (which includes the adjacent Scapegoat and Great Bear Wilderness Areas) that were last used in the 1940s and 50s.

The proposition is perplexing for several reasons. First, it’s illegal. With few exceptions, the Wilderness Act prohibits motorized use.

Second, it’s unnecessary. These lands are accessible by countless trailheads, several rivers, and four airstrips, including one backcountry strip at Schafer Meadows that was grandfathered into the Great Bear Wilderness in 1978. A management plan caps landings at 550 annually, but the total number has only exceeded 500 twice in 30 years.

Third, it’s destructive. Increasing noisy air traffic by eight-fold in an area nationally renowned as a quiet retreat would further diminish what little solitude, silence, and wildness we have left in this motorized world.

Thankfully, Perdue, a Trump-appointee, quickly cancelled Senator Daines’ flight plan. In July, he sent a memorable reply explaining that these airstrips “were not in public use at the time of the Wilderness designation” and will be managed “to naturally restore and blend into the landscape.”

After reading this surprising exchange of letters, I found myself asking pilots around the state what inspired this absurd request in the first place. Mike Korn, a recreational pilot and former deputy chief of law enforcement for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, offered a particularly astute response.

“Right now, the mindset in DC is anything goes,” he said. “From a political point of view, Daines and others are saying ‘Katy bar the door, everything’s on the table’.”

In other words, the cause of all this tomfoolery is the hubris of majority rule.

In the long-forgotten days of 2014, Republicans ruled the House, Democrats held the Senate, and a liberal occupied the Oval Office. Way back then, freshman Congressman Daines contributed to and voted for a compromise public land package. Among other measures, the package protected Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front and North Fork Flathead River Watershed while opening other lands for development.

Praised by some and reproached by others, the package was undeniably a bi-partisan project with outcomes on both sides of the conservation ledger. As such, it did what bills no longer do — become law. The 115th Congress has introduced over 12,000 bills and passed fewer than 2 percent, making this Congress arguably the least productive in 164 years, according to David Faris, a political scientist at Roosevelt University.

This is a remarkable paradox: Republicans have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pass bills and have chosen to pass less of them than ever before. While there are several explanations for this strange result, a sensible one is that majority lawmakers tend to dismiss the latter-day political norms of compromise and public engagement as anachronistic and unnecessary.

But, here’s the thing: the old habits of less audacious politicians produced bills that majorities of regular people actually wanted to become law. Therefore, more bills became law. Sen. Daines, Rep. Gianforte, and their colleagues in the House and Senate, would do well to follow in the footsteps of these former statesmen.

To do that, they’ll need to trade political hubris for public humility. They’ll need to get their heads out of the clouds and start listening to people on the ground.

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