The Billings Outpost

Bohlinger tries for traction in U.S. Senate race

HELENA HANDBAG

CATHY SIEGNER -

All the pointless posturing and increasing partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere make it crystal clear that the most important goal for the two major parties (besides raking in money and electing their chosen candidates, of course) is making points against one another. That has become far more important than actually fixing any of the country’s problems.

There have always been cyclical splits within the two main parties, and especially now within the GOP as the Tea Party types splinter away from the more moderate wing and are poised to cause heartburn as we get closer to the 2014 elections. No doubt some members of Congress up for reelection are deciding how to vote while keeping an eagle eye over on the right.

The Democrats aren’t as prone to splintering right now since their guy is occupying the White House and they still have a single-digit majority in the U.S. Senate. The House of Representatives is another story, where Republicans have a 33-member majority over the Dems and have passed plenty of time-wasting legislation mainly for political points. One example is voting 46 times to overturn or defund the Affordable Care Act, which they know won’t make it through the Senate.

When the U.S. political spectrum has been violently yanked to the right, it leaves the more moderate to liberal folks out in the cold. Just ask former Montana Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who’s trying to bring some rationality to the proceedings but is looking like an iconoclastic party-hopper in the process. 

The former Republican recently stepped up to run in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Max Baucus. While he’s doing that, he’s also making some strong public statements about the electoral process and how much the Democratic Party machine here and in D.C. wants him out of the race.

According to a Nov. 12 article on Politico.com, Bohlinger recounted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called to ask him to drop out of the race in favor of the chosen one, current Montana Lt. Gov. John Walsh. Bohlinger reportedly told Reid that, regardless of sentiments back East, there would be a Democratic primary in Montana, adding, “And it will be the people of Montana that choose the next Democratic senatorial candidate.”

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, while asserting that he will remain neutral in the U.S. Senate primary, has said some nice things about his former running mate. He recently told the National Journal that, while he knows Walsh will win the overall money race, he would donate to both Bohlinger’s and Walsh’s campaigns.

“Don’t listen to the bulls— you hear in Washington, D.C.,” Schweitzer said. “If the [primary] election were held today, John Bohlinger would win 2-to-1 over John Walsh. He’s not going to raise the money Walsh is because D.C. has selected Walsh as their candidate. ... But the election isn’t right now, it’s next year, and the Democratic Senate machine in Washington, D.C., has their sights set on John Walsh, so he’ll have a lot more money than John Bohlinger.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee really wants to keep the seat Baucus has been warming for the past 35 years in the blue column. Rumor has it the DSCC dispatched a campaign operative to Montana to help Walsh get his campaign in gear, and Walsh has also hired several former staffers from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s re-election campaign to help him out.

Here’s how DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil recently characterized the situation: “Democrats are well positioned to hold the Montana Senate seat. John Walsh’s unique personal story of courageously serving his country and his state contract sharply with Steve Daines’ status as a Washington insider tarnished with the sagging GOP brand who has always put himself before his fellow citizens by profiting off the federal government while in the private sector or recklessly voting to shut down the government.”

Predictably, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is not impressed. According to Politico.com, the committee calls Walsh a flawed and beatable candidate and remains confident that freshman U.S. Rep. Daines, R-Mont., can make the step up to the Senate.

“Democrats are trying to distract from their extremely unpopular and vulnerable incumbents with phony enthusiasm for long-shot candidates like John Walsh and Natalie Tennant,” said NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen.

Meanwhile, Bohlinger is continuing to lob verbal grenades. His latest volley is courtesy of what looks like a homemade video posted to YouTube.com, in which he decries the prevalence of “dark money” groups influencing Montana and national politics and touts the economic leadership of the Schweitzer administration. He managed to invoke the former governor’s name at least three times in the approximately three-minute video.

Current Gov. Steve Bullock, along with U.S. Sens. Baucus and Tester, have all endorsed Walsh. A humorous comment followed recent news of Bullock’s endorsement, noting that if Walsh is elected to the Senate, Montana’s two members would be sporting the only two crewcuts there.

Obamacare issues

One area where the Dems are in predictable disarray is the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Crafting and passage of this law were manipulated to avoid having a single-payer system, which would have made more sense financially and every other way if Congress truly wanted to provide basic coverage for all. 

But, sorry to say, what most members of Congress wanted to do was look like they were doing something about the problem while placating insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, the medical establishment and anybody else who’s been raking in zillions off our so-called healthcare system for years on end.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., knows all about it. After all, he was instrumental in crafting and then shepherding this pathetic Band-Aid deal into reality. Even now, despite all the inherent problems, plus the SNAFUs in the program rollout, he’s defending the law and says there’s nothing he wants more than for it to succeed.

At the recent hearing in which Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was called on the carpet to explain the dysfunctional Healthcare.gov website, Baucus reminded attendees he had warned that the rollout had better go well or implementation of the ACA would be derailed. Early on, he had predicted a “huge train wreck” if the administration messed up the debut of the complex new law.

“I want to do what I can to help you make it work, but it’s a two-way street,” he reportedly told Sebelius at the Nov. 6 hearing. “You’ve got to tell us what’s going on — candidly, fully — so we don’t wake up at the end of November and lo and behold, still nothing yet.”

Last week, President Obama announced that Americans whose health insurance coverage was canceled because of ACA could keep their plans for one more year if they wish. He had previously promised that nobody would have to give up an insurance plan they liked because of the new law.

One can only hope that things with ACA get so screwed up that Congress is forced to go back and adopt a single-payer health-care plan as it should have done in the first place. Such systems work pretty well in a lot of other countries, and we deserve to have the same thing here.

I spy

Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine that regularly reports on Edward Snowden’s leaked documents, is now stating that the British intelligence agency GCHQ has been tracking any foreign diplomats and government officials who stay at 350 luxury hotels around the world.

GCHQ is part of the British government and characterizes itself as a secret “intelligence and security organization, working to keep Britain safe and secure in the challenging environment of modern communications.” This newly revealed program, called “Royal Concierge,” will soon be extended to cover car rentals, according to Der Spiegel.

Quote of the week

“Today, the four biggest banks are 30 percent larger than they were five years ago. And the five largest banks now hold more than half of the total banking assets in the country. Who would have thought five years ago, after we witnessed firsthand the dangers of an overly concentrated financial system, that the ‘too big to fail’ problem would only have gotten worse?” - U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a Nov. 12 speech on the future of financial reform.

 

Last Updated on Saturday, 23 November 2013 11:46

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Careful: NSA is reading this over your shoulder

HELENA HANDBAG

CATHY SIEGNER -

Let’s get the latest National Security Administration news out of the way. We wouldn’t want them spending one more taxpayer dollar than necessary to read this whole column.

Yet more leaks have emerged in the past week, informing a weary world that the NSA network has been spying on the Vatican, the United Nations, the Taliban, and pretty much every country or group out there whose citizens possess electronic devices (and probably some who don’t).

On Saturday, a New York Times article (“No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming N.S.A.”) calls the agency “an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations.”

In fact, The Times’ article asserts, NSA’s 24/7 surveillance program provides about half of President Obama’s daily security briefing. (In an ironic twist, the article noted that The Times was not detailing in print all of the agency’s leaked activities due to NSA concerns about compromising national security.)

NSA officials haven’t been very helpful in explaining this excessive snooping nor in making the issue go away. They are usually repeating some version of: 1. We didn’t do it; 2. Everybody does it; 3. We need to do it to keep the country safe and fight terrorism because of 9/11.

Short of muzzling leaker extraordinaire Edward Snowden (unlikely) and his journalist compadre, Green Greenwald (ditto), the best the Obama administration can seem to do right now is order a review of NSA intelligence gathering, tell the agency to stop spying at the U.N., and try to maintain an aura of not-very-plausible deniability that the president knew much of anything about it. Good luck with that.

Concern over NSA’s actions has seeped into the U.S. Congress, sort of. Last week, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) introduced a bill to reform the NSA called “The USA Freedom Act.” Sensenbrenner, incidentally, was one of the guys who came up with the USA Patriot Act, which helped create this dismal situation in the first place.

Don’t get your hopes up though. There’s already a much-weaker bill making greater headway. But members know they’d better get off the dime because this issue is uniting too many disparate groups. When you’ve got the ACLU and the NRA joining forces, it’s time to do something, or at least look like they are.

No fun

Here’s one more brief NSA item to show that not only are these particular feds busy dissembling about their own activities, they also have no sense of humor.

Minnesota entrepreneur Dan McCall has for years been making a living selling parody T-shirts and other items making fun of NSA surveillance and similar government activities. After the Snowden/Greenwald leaks, however, the site featuring his items got a cease-and-desist order because of shirts sporting the NSA logo and stating, “Peeping while you’re sleeping,” and “NSA: the only part of the government that actually listens.”

The site, zazzle.com, removed the shirt and told McCall that the T-shirt content “infringes upon the intellectual property rights” of the NSA. McCall has now sued the NSA for violating his First Amendment rights, claiming that the agency’s infringement claims are “unconstitutionally overbroad.”

Daines event

Back in Big Sky Country, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., scheduled a public event for noon Wednesday, Nov. 6, at the Bozeman Holiday Inn to “thank his supporters and all Montanans,” as one of his staffers put it.

Will this be his official announcement that he’s running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Max Baucus? That’s what the street says, and the street is rarely wrong on such things (especially since, in Montana anyway, the street includes virtually the entire state).

Broker fees

After watching a PBS Frontline special the other night on the pathetic state of U.S. retirement savings and the increasingly big hit investment fund fees are taking on them, I noted that Rep. Daines recently voted against helping the situation anytime soon.

U.S. Labor Department officials have been advocating rules requiring financial advisers and brokers to act in their customers’ best interests. Known as the “suitability standard,” the concept is akin to rules governing the activities of stockbrokers and other financial professionals. It means that the latter will promote financial products suitable to the particular investor instead of those that will draw larger fees or commissions for the adviser.

Wall Street, predictably, doesn’t like this idea and has been lobbying against it. Daines was one of 224 House Republicans who voted last week for a proposal to force the Labor Department to delay any such rules until the Securities and Exchange Commission comes up with its own, and the SEC hasn’t exactly been on a fast track in that area. The president has already said that he will veto the House measure.

 Stamped out

Word has arrived that Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, is also one of the largest recipients of food stamps, meaning the huge amount of food stamps used to buy products in Walmart stores.

I’m guessing that plenty of folks using those food stamps are some of the company’s own employees, who typically are paid low wages and work less than full time and therefore are more likely to be eligible.

According to recent reports, Americans spent about 18 percent of all food stamp dollars at Walmart, which amounts to about $14 billion of the whole $80 billion Congress budgeted in 2012 for food stamps.

It’s in Walmart’s financial interest to keep staff wages and hours down so their own people qualify for food stamps since a slew of them are going to be spent at the giant retailer’s stores. And it may not seem to be in Walmart’s interest for the government to cut down on food stamp monthly allotments (which is exactly what the Farm Bill now being hashed out in a Senate/House conference committee would do).

Nearly 48 million Americans (a record number of recipients) just saw their food stamps reduced by 5 percent as of Nov. 1, amounting to about $36 less each month for a family of four getting an average $278 in monthly food stamp benefits.

In Montana, the Nov. 1 food stamp cut will affect an estimated 131,000 recipients (13 percent of the state’s population) and amount to about a $13-million reduction in fiscal 2014, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. That 131,000 number includes about 55,000 children and about 24,000 elderly or people with disabilities.

Quote of the week

“My advice would be to take everything you think Snowden has and get it out yourself. It would certainly be a shock to the agency. But bad news doesn’t get better with age. The sooner they get it out and put it behind them, the faster they can begin to rebuild.”

- Bobby R. Inman, former head of the National Security Agency, on how the NSA should handle continuing leaks about its extensive spying network.

 

Last Updated on Saturday, 09 November 2013 12:00

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Fires, freedom and philosophy

By BOB BROWN

In 1944, wreckage of three 33 foot in diameter balloons with Japanese writing on them was found in western Montana.  The FBI later reported that 6,000 such balloons were released from Japan, equipped with incendiary devices to start wild fires in the United States and Canada.

No amount of high tech spying could defend us from a terrorist whose delivery system is a paper balloon.  In the dry forest, all a domestic terrorist needs is a box of matches.  I remember once being informed that our electrical grid system could be critically compromised by one well-placed bullet from a high-powered rifle. 

In a free society, there can be no adequate defense against some threats to security. Larger scale threats that require planning, organization and finances can be detected by surveillance, and the extent to which that should be allowed is now the subject of open debate in our free country where such debate is allowed.

In Montana, a coalition of libertarians and civil libertarians in the recent legislative session enacted first of its kind legislation to require a probable cause warrant before government can monitor us through our cell phones and laptops.  No other state has done this, and such a restriction may not even be possible.  Regardless, will such laws prohibiting “big brother” from encroaching on privacy without reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity make any difference?

If privacy means anonymity, such laws will make no difference at all.  Whenever we use Google we voluntarily give up our privacy.  Search engines that are now part of our culture know where we live, what we buy, what we know, and when we die.  Private companies own the data to the details of our lives.  How can government be kept out of it?  Privacy, as it existed a generation ago, is no longer possible for those who live normal lives today.  The alternative is a hermit’s existence without so much as a telephone.

Even a hermit, though, stepping into the open in many modern cities, does so under surveillance cameras.  That’s how we caught the Tsarnaev brothers after the Boston bombing.  

Old world “snail mail” is also not shielded from today’s dragnet.   U.S. Postal Service computers take pictures of the exterior of every piece of mail that passes through the system.  As the increasingly engaged National Security Administration cannot legally examine the content of communications deemed suspicious in the collected mountain of “mega-data” without obtaining legal authorization, so too, posted letters can’t be opened without a warrant.  Such faith based protections, however, are cold comfort to increasing numbers on both the political left and right who don’t trust government with its self-regulated safeguards. 

The reality, though, is that we have no choice but trust.  To paraphrase classical conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, no matter the safeguards in any system, the ultimate decisions that determine our security as well as our freedom depend on the “prudence and uprightness” of the leaders we elect to make and administer our laws.

Unfortunately, history teaches us that the primal instinct of survival dominates the less fundamental need to be free.  That was true before Burke, balloons and matchbooks, and continues in this time of unending “war on terror” when leader-led  challenges to a free and open society are expanding along with technology.   ‘

What hasn’t changed is that our system of “government by the consent of the governed” remains the only legitimate system for selecting prudent and upright leaders.  It has survived the tests of time and will be equal to the tests of today because it has to be.  There is no other choice.

Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state and state Senate president.

 

Last Updated on Sunday, 08 September 2013 16:01

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Fair Energy Policy Essential to Montana’s Future

By DOUG KARY

Businessmen and women around the world depend on stable and affordable energy to conduct their daily lives—although this is no new concept, it is one that is too often painfully taken for granted. 

Regardless of what we are doing, whether it is traveling across the globe or simply heading into the office, we rely on energy producers to provide us with the resources to reach our destination. Yet despite this reliance—from our need for oil and gas to power our vehicles and homes, to the ability to transport goods across the country—our current administration is bound and determined to push our American oil and gas producers out of the American energy portfolio.

Although our president may talk a good game when it comes to preserving an “all-of-the-above” energy portfolio, his actions speak to the contrary. 

During his tenure, President Obama has made many strategic moves in an attempt to undercut American energy producers. Initially, the administration boasted rhetoric-based talking points of “closing loop holes” in the tax code, when in reality they were picking and choosing which industries they wanted to help, and which they wanted to force punitive tax measures on.

With the Presidents recent release of his “energy plan” full of new EPA regulations, it is clear that this administration’s priorities are not those of expanding American energy development, or even of developing new technologies to make American energy production more effective and efficient. No, in fact, they are the exact opposite and his administration continues to push unfair and burdensome tax policies on America’s energy producers that do nothing but harm consumers and slow down economic growth—which is why the efforts currently underway in the Senate to simplify the tax code are so crucial. 

Taking on the task of simplifying the tax code by starting with a “clean slate” could prove a substantial threat to the American energy industry if the administration and its supporters in the Senate are allowed to weigh in too heavily into the process.

If President Obama and his supporters in the Senate achieve their aims, this “cleansing” of the tax code could leave American energy producers paying a disproportionate and competitively disadvantageous percentage of the tax burden—which would not only hurt American consumers, but impede technological development and undermine America’s efforts of achieving energy independence.

Our own Senator Baucus is leading the effort in the Senate to reform the tax code. With this being Sen. Baucus’s final term in the Senate, he has the opportunity to make sensible changes to our energy policy without conforming to the will of the administration, or either political party.

In order to maintain stability and affordability in the market for American energy consumers, we need Senator Baucus to make reasonable and bi-partisan decisions on energy tax policies. I urge Senator Baucus to work with all the parties involved and to put in place a tax structure that does not unnecessarily weigh down American energy producers and that will incentivize innovation moving forward.

Rep. Doug Kary represents House District 48 in the Montana State Legislature. He is a member of the House Federal Relations, Energy, and Telecommunications Committee and the House State Administration Committee. Rep. Kary also serves as the Vice Chair of the House Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Committee and is currently serving on the Joint Interim State Administration and Veterans' Affairs Committee.

 

Last Updated on Monday, 19 August 2013 21:26

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Government threatens privacy

By Rep. Daniel Zolnikov - House District 47, Billings Heights

We take privacy for granted. Too often we mistakenly assume that we are the only ones privy to our personal information. We assume it is within our discretion to decide who has access to the most intimate details of our personal lives --unfortunately, as the latest headlines have shown, this couldn't be further from the truth.

The National Security Agency has implemented policies undermining the expectation of privacy that every American assumes they have. I say “assumes” because after the PRISM program came to light, it is obvious that Americans no longer have any privacy from their government. The leaks have revealed that the NSA is not only collecting information about American's cell phone use, but is collecting ALL of our digital communications, including our most personal conversations. The President’s administration has chosen to accost the original informant and even acclaimed members of our press, rather than address the issue at hand: the right of American's to lead a private life without government intrusion and surveillance.

The quiet and well-kept secret of NSA spying on unsuspecting American citizens via phone and internet surveillance is done in the name of protecting us from terrorist attacks. Yet many of the individuals under surveillance do not fit any of the prerequisite criteria for being a “terror suspect”, thus making us ask the question, "why are we being spied upon?”

Preserving our national security has always come at a cost, but the feeling of security should never be used as a justification for the degradation of individual liberty. Benjamin Franklin said it best, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Privacy from government intrusion is key to Franklin's liberty.

During the past 2013 legislative session I introduced HB 603, a bill recently signed into law that restricts law enforcement officials from using cell phone location information obtained from third party providers without first obtaining a warrant. My bill was a bi-partisan effort by Republicans and Democrats who worked together to protect Montanans from undue government overreach and unwarranted surveillance.

Another piece of legislation I sponsored during the legislative session was HB 400, a bill to create a data privacy act to protect Montanans by preventing companies and government agencies from obtaining our personal information without our consent. As it stands, there is no law currently on the books to protect Montanans from having our personal data sold without our consent. For example, remember the prescription that you had filled at the local CVS? The one where they ask for your phone number, address and date of birth before filling? All of that personal data, and much more, is available for purchase to the highest bidder for whatever use the purchasing organization sees fit.

HB 400 would have solved this problem by enabling individuals to choose whether or not their information could be resold to third party vendors. Was this bill considered far reaching? Yes. And that was exactly the point.

Our personal information, even if held by a third party provider, is our own private information, and the control and access of that information must remain with the individual. Don't get me wrong, I am a strong supporter of lowering taxes and removing overburdening regulations to promote a more business friendly environment in Montana, but the lack of policy concerning individual privacy is beyond acceptable.

To a typical Montanan, this type of legislation would seem to be common sense and in the best interest of Montanans. Some politicians in Helena, more concerned about their reelection than representing constituents, thought differently. Lobbyists and special interest groups rallied against HB 400 because they decided that obtaining our information without consent and selling it for a nice profit was more important than protecting Montanans and their private information.

As sad as it seems, we are living in a time when our rights are no longer guaranteed but must instead be legislated. In light of the current national controversy sweeping our nation regarding the protection of personal information, it is my hope that more of our elected officials will be prompted to join me in working to ensure the fundamental right of privacy for all Montanans.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov is the Montana State Representative for House District 47, the Billings Heights area of Billings, MT. Rep. Zolnikov serves on the Local Government Committee, the Taxation Committee, and the Committee on Federal Relations, Energy, and Telecommunications. 

 

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 August 2013 16:15

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