An Agricultural View of Montana’s House Race


The following article can also be found in the September/October 2010 edition of Montana Angus News.

It seems only fitting that our elected officials would share the same agricultural backbone of our state, right?  Perhaps.  The current race for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives includes a fifth-generation Montana rancher, a Montana rancher born in Kansas that practiced law in California and a Havre graduate that now calls Missoula home.


If anything, a debate in June of this year showed that this congressional race will prove to be colossally critical and surpassingly sarcastic.  Out of the gates, Melville, Montana rancher Dennis McDonald (D) challenged incumbent Congressman Denny Rehberg’s (R) work ethic.  McDonald is a founding member of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and a past President of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association.  In the debate, he stated that Congressman Rehberg was given a ranch and “couldn’t make it go because he didn’t want to work on it.”  According to McDonald, “He decided to chop it up, sell it by the slice in the form of a subdivision.”  He went on to say that Rehberg was not a rancher, but rather a land developer.

Congressman Rehberg countered that he was not given a ranch, but that it was handed down from generation to generation.  He added that this exact process was one of the initial compelling factors that prompted him to run for Congress.  When the family ranch was passed along to his sister and him as an operational business, he stated that, “the federal government felt like they needed to take part of it.”  He explained that they had to sell a third of the ranch just to make the down payment on the estate tax.

During that June debate, the Libertarian candidate, Mike Fellows of Missoula, avoided the ranching dispute.  He focused on the growing aggravation of the voting population and how that signaled the need for a new way of looking at things.  His also emphasized, true to Libertarian policy, that the government needs to lessen its role in our lives.  According to Project Vote Smart, Fellows has run for this seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.

Setting aside the feuds that uncovered themselves during the debate, how do these candidates stand on the issues significant to you and important to agriculture?

Surprisingly, they agree on the basics for a number of key issues affecting the agricultural industry with a few key exceptions.  Those points of harmony include the estate tax, private property rights, predators and federal protection, country of origin labeling and the need to maintain a competitive marketplace for beef.  However, the conversation of public grazing showcases some extreme differences between the candidates.

Before we uncover the truths in that point of contention, we’ll talk about the very tax brought up by Congressman Rehberg during the debate.  Although the estate tax is basically nonexistent here in 2010, continued inaction by our elected officials this year will result in the so-called “death tax” reverting back to a $1 million exemption and top rate of 55 percent starting on January 1, 2011.  All three candidates support a permanent repeal of the tax.  In fact, Mike Fellows takes it a step further.  According to the Libertarian platform, “All persons are entitled to keep the fruits of their labor.”  That belief is so strong within the party that it even calls for a complete repeal of the income tax.

While all three also contend that private property rights are sacred and a top concern, things get a bit murkier when we look at the right of a property owner and the possibility of national monuments in the state.  Earlier this year, a small number of pages were leaked from the Department of Interior outlining the possibility of using the Antiquities Act to create national monuments in the region.  The Act gives President Obama authority to make a national monument declaration regardless of congressional action.  Although brushed off by Interior personnel as being part of an unimportant and irrelevant brainstorming session, a huge portion of Montana was included in the documents as an area that they would like to see protected.  Congressman Rehberg has been proactive in getting answers and promoting legislation that would exempt Montana from any such designation.  McDonald agrees that any such designations would be wrong at this time.  After establishing that, McDonald has made strong allegations about Congressman Rehberg’s involvement.  He has come out publicly saying that Congressman Rehberg has taken the situation to new levels as he manufactures fear by openly discussing the possibility in an inflammatory fashion.  In looking to the topic from Fellow’s perspective, “The government has too much land already.”  He adds that if he had a ranch, he would also be concerned about the possibility of the federal government taking it.

From the Antiquities Act to the Endangered Species Act, the government does take an active role.  Since being reintroduced to our region, wolves have bounced on and off the Endangered Species List.  A recent ruling by Missoula’s Judge Molloy put them back under those protections.  Looking at this issue, McDonald points out that the numbers far exceed original reintroduction goals and adds that the negative impact on livestock and other wildlife species is well documented.  His suggestions are that ranchers be allowed to treat wolves as predators when on private land and be allowed to protect their livestock whenever threatened.  As recently as August of this year, Congressman Rehberg has been working to get wolves off of the Endangered Species List.  According to Rehberg, “It’s become clear the courts and the environmental extremists have abandoned the principle of sound science when determining the status of the gray wolf.”  Fellows contends that this is another area that the federal government needs to stay clear of, adding that ranchers still have property rights and their own way of managing problems caused by wolves.

With all three men agreeing that wolves can hamper the rights of private property owners, Fellows disagrees with the other two candidates when it comes to livestock grazing on public land.  When addressing the issue, Fellows stated that, “I don’t think this is the best use of our public lands.”  He added that this is another giveaway paid for by taxpayers that needs to be stopped.  McDonald, on the other hand, contends that multiple use of our public lands is something that most citizens prize.  Likewise, Rehberg understands the benefits and has worked to protect those rights in his political career.

Another place that both McDonald and Rehberg have shown similar support is in the arena of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL).  Through his involvement in the agriculture industry, McDonald pushed for the law, claiming that it would allow consumers to make informed decisions that help out the U.S. livestock producer.  In April of this year, Congressman Rehberg went as far as sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging them to step up enforcement of COOL.

COOL made changes for the packing industry.  It’s fitting, then, that one of the most current contentious crossroads in the livestock industry deals with concentration in that very area.  It’s a crossroads for two reasons.  First, the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) has proposed a rewritten version of the Packers and Stockyards Act.  The mission of the Act, which was written in 1921, is “to protect fair trade practices, financial integrity, and competitive markets for livestock, meats, and poultry.”  The rewritten version, which is currently in the midst of a public comment period, attempts to give the Act a more modern makeover.  The second reason that this issue has taken over the spotlight as of late deals with a series of joint competition workshops being hosted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the USDA.  This is the first time in history that these two departments have looked at the issue collaboratively.

Meetings and proposed changes to the Act are current and ongoing.  However, clear back in 2006, Congressman Rehberg had requested that the House Ag Committee hold a full committee hearing on the topic.  That request came after a report from the USDA Office of Inspector General showed that GIPSA was failing to properly enforce trade protection laws.  At that time, Congressman Rehberg stated that, “It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure fair trade practices, and in this situation, immediate attention is needed.”  In looking at the issue, he emphasized that producers deserve nothing less.  McDonald also speaks strongly in dealing with this issue.  He contends that the monopolistic practices of the packers have distorted the marketplace and have led to a lack of competition.  In this picture, McDonald explains, grassroots cattle producers are the losers.  His excitement shows as he discusses the openness of the Administration to address the ongoing obstacle. 

Despite varied opinions, the current obstacle for each is getting elected this November.  Even before the primary ballots were printed, derogatory campaigns focusing on personal attacks were being sponsored on behalf of the candidates.  The task of voters in this year’s election will be to dig through the criticism and sarcasm, which will only increase as we get near our November decisions, to see what each candidate stands for.  While votes in the past may have been as easy as looking to which candidate was pro-agriculture, that won’t be the case for the 2010 race.  Keep your eyes and ears open for upcoming debates.  There are sure to be some in the works.  As always, if you think you can do better, the next election is just around the corner.


© Northern Ag Network 2010

Haylie Shipp



Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x