In 1988, Conrad Burns, a little-known county commissioner and livestock auctioneer from Billings, rode a Republican wave into office and became a U.S. Senator. His “good old boy” personality and colloquial “You Bet!” campaign slogan carried the day in the election against unexpecting Democratic incumbent, Sen. John Melcher. In those days, Conrad Burns was full of promises to fight the federal government, trim spending and solve Montana’s problems. Lending credence to his anti-Washington rhetoric, he gave voters his word that he would limit himself to two terms in office. Twelve long years later, Montana is in worse shape by virtually any measure and its problems aren’t even close to being solved. Instead, Sen. Burns has become every bit the “Washin’ton politician” he once denounced, and is now running for the third term he promised he wouldn’t seek.
Back in ’88, Montana was locked in a decades-old struggle over wilderness designation for part of the vast federal lands within our borders. Then-Representative Pat Williams had crafted a Montana Wilderness Act and passed it through the House. Senator Baucus did his part in the Senate and John Melcher mostly went along for the ride. The Demo-controlled Congress handed the bill over to President Reagan who, to both please industry lobbyists and elevate Burn’s election profile, became the first president in history to veto a state wilderness bill. Conrad rode the veto to victory on election day, and predicted a bright economic future thanks to his efforts to save Montanans from wilderness.
Like so many broken Republican promises, the economic boom that was supposed to follow yet another natural resource giveaway never happened. These days, Conrad doesn’t talk about vetoed wilderness bills. Instead, Burns’ twang and slaughtered syntax are now painfully employed to tell us how much federal money he has pork-barreled in our direction, while promises of telecommunications riches in our “new economy” fill his speeches. Meanwhile, tales of his important positions on important committees and the value of his seniority in the Senate fuel new promises of how much more he can do for us—but only if we send him back to Washington.
The record belies Conrad’s bellicose promises. For a full decade, Burns and his Republican cronies have presided over what has been called “the do-nothing Congress.” As part of Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution,” Congress has primarily spent its time—and our money—investigating everyone associated with the Clinton administration. When it comes to legislation, much of their public policy has come in the form of riders tacked onto appropriations bills with little public knowledge and even less opportunity for public input. Even the appropriation process has been herky-jerky at best, marked by frequent government shutdowns and temporary funding measures. In short, Burns has little to brag about for either his 12 years in Congress or the “Republican Revolution.”
What Conrad can brag about is what a great job he has done of promoting himself in Washington. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. When you send an auctioneer to D.C., I guess you’d expect him to sell to the highest bidder. And he has. Conrad’s cornucopia of corporate ties is incredible.
Burns is a huge recipient of tobacco companies’ political largesse—even though we grow no tobacco in Montana.
The nearly $400,000 he has received from telecom companies has ensured that the provision of services like 911 is paid for by citizens (check your phone bill to see how much you’re now paying in federal taxes and fees). Meanwhile, our state is crossed by fiber optic cables to which most of our communities have no access.
Burns co-sponsored legislation to protect the W.R. Grace company from the very expensive wrath of Libby residents sickened and dying from Grace’s asbestos pollution. It took a state-wide media campaign to expose his Washington shenanigans and embarrass him into pulling his name from the measure.
And then there’s his famous defense of the pharmaceutical drug industry—which sells the exact same drugs to foreign countries for a fraction of what they charge Americans.
It is well known that Burns has a reputation as one of the top recipients of free rides on corporate jets and all-expenses-paid junkets to golf tournaments. Whatever inducement the vast wealth of corporate expense accounts can imagine, Burns is likely to go for. But remember, it’s all in service to Montana.
Comes now his challenger, Brian Schweitzer, a successful farmer, soil scientist, global consultant and bulldog campaigner. Schweitzer has garnered national attention on both the media and political stage for his bus tours to take citizens to Canada and Mexico to buy their prescription drugs. He is articulate, intelligent, and willing to fight. When Burns tries to “aw shucks” his way around issues, Schweitzer pulls the topic back on target, refers to Burns’ record, points out where Conrad gets his money and which masters he actually serves while pretending to represent Montana’s citizens. The difference could not be more clear—Conrad has turned into a Washington, D.C., “good old boy” in every respect while Schweitzer concentrates on solutions that make sense for Montana citizens.
In a karmic political juxtaposition, Burns now struggles for his political future against Schweitzer’s credible challenge to the massed wealth and power of an incumbent Senator. Deep inside, Conrad must be trembling as he recalls how he, too, came out of nowhere to send Doc Melcher home. It must be hard for him to look Montana farmers and ranchers in the eye and keep making promises for a better future—the same promises he has made for so many years and which our struggling agricultural economy clearly proves he has not fulfilled. His promises to cut government spending have now morphed into excuses that Montana should get its share of the federal pie. His former commitment to protect the taxpayers through fiscal conservatism is left behind—roadkill on Conrad’s Beltway tour.
There’s not much we can do about Conrad’s broken promises. But there is one that we can help Conrad keep—and that’s his promise to be a two-term Senator. Is it time to bounce Burns out of the Senate? To borrow a phrase, “You bet!” George Ochenski has lobbied the Legislature since 1985, primarily on environmental, tribal and public interest issues. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.