What I Learned from Jon Tester
The day before Thanksgiving I had breakfast with the recently re-elected senior U.S. Senator from Montana, Jon Tester. He is a native Montanan, born in Havre. He grew up in Big Sandy, MT, where his wife and he still run a farm (organic since the 1980s). Emily and I had the pleasure of meeting and having breakfast with Senator Tester and eight or ten others because I am lucky to know two of Jon's brothers, both of whom now live in north Idaho, men who are part of a group that frequently shares breakfast, stories, and argument. Senator Tester had come to north Idaho for a family Thanksgiving.
The Tester brothers are large men. For all his size, Jon is soft spoken and comes across as friendly and gentle. I, as a retired physician, found myself a little distracted by the dexterity he exhibited with his left hand, a hand with only the thumb and its fifth digit, the result of a meat grind accident at age 9.
So what did I take away? I'm not a reporter. I didn't record breakfast, nor did I take any written or digital notes. Of course, there were a few tidbits: Ted Cruz (R-TX) is generally not well-thought of by his fellow Senators. Jon finds Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) someone with whom he can work, Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID)...not so much. But apart from a generally warm and fuzzy feeling about the person Jon Tester, for me the most interesting things I took home from breakfast were notions of how Congress functions on a personal level.
First, without quite realizing it, I had it in my head that each person we send to Olympia or Washington, D.C. must know everything, or at least much, much more than I do about all that government manages. It was no surprise to me Senator Tester was very aware of farm economics affected by the current administration, the impending threat of bankruptcy hanging over many, and the struggle to pass the Farm Bill.. There were many other issues with which he was clear and up to date--and I have forgotten the details of most of them. But this came across clearly: Senator Tester knows what he does know and he easily admits it when he doesn't know. What a relief... He was clearly "up" on issues addressed by the committees and sub-committees on which he serves (among them Homeland Security and Veterans' Affairs), but he relies on his fellow Senators to understand and keep him apprised of other workings.
Second, again without quite realizing it, I had an image of a clubby sort of camaraderie among all those we send to D.C. I asked Senator Tester what he thought of Cathy McMorris Rodgers. After all, she is a U.S Representative from a nearby state AND she is (or at least was) part of the House leadership, often touted as a powerful person we in eastern Washington should be loathe to lose. McMorris Rodgers' and Senator Tester's tenure in Congress has overlapped for twelve whole years. They must know each other pretty well, right? Tester's response: "I really don't know many of the Representatives."
There are 435 Representatives and 100 Senators in D.C. That's 535 total. Add the President, Vice President, the cabinet, the staff of all these elected people, the President's cabinet, and an abundance of lobbyists and the total is far beyond any single human's capacity to keep track, much less maintain connection. Social scientists have assembled evidence that even the most gregarious humans are able to keep tract of social connections to about two hundred people.
I left breakfast that day before Thanksgiving with a better understanding of the task our federal Congress people face back in D.C., with an appreciation for people like Jon Tester, who know what they don't know but possess the bandwidth and background with which to learn,...and with a sense of dismay that in the Representative eastern Washington has just retained I fear we have neither.
Have a great weekend and
Keep to the high ground,