Extended Senate Delays Leave a Rural State Voiceless

Obstructionism is the norm in Congress, and one minor ripple of continued deadlock is disproportionately being felt in Montana. As Senate Democrats do everything in their power to delay confirmation of Trump’s Cabinet picks, a fraught political debate is surfacing in the Big Sky State: Should sitting members of Congress awaiting approval for Cabinet roles still cast their votes?

Congressman Ryan Zinke, Montana’s lone representative and Trump’s pick for interior secretary, missed 87 percent of his votes between his re-election in November and mid-February, according to a report by Montana Public Radio. (Trump chose him for the position in early December.) Last year, Zinke missed just 2.7 percent of his votes, just barely above the median for members of the House.

An absence like Zinke’s may garner less vitriol in some states, but rural states with miniscule populations — Montana has just over a million residents — face to lose their entire voice in the House of Representatives as long, drawn-out political fights delay key confirmation hearings. Zinke hasn’t indicated why he has shirked his congressional duties, though Reps. Mike Pompeo, Tom Price, and Mick Mulvaney also were nominated for Trump’s Cabinet and have similarly abstained from voting. Zinke’s office did not return a request for comment from the Monthly.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Zinke’s nomination on Jan. 31, and he’s finally scheduled for a vote from the full Senate tomorrow morning.

Zinke quickly rose through the political ranks in Montana, a red state with a serious libertarian tinge that has had Democratic governors for the past 12 years and at least one Democratic senator for the past century; Trump trounced Hillary Clinton by 20 points in the state. Zinke was a relatively early Trump supporter, and his wife Lola served on Trump’s transition team tackling veterans’ issues.

Jeff Essmann, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, told Montana Public Radio that it’s customary for sitting members of Congress to miss votes while awaiting confirmation. But that argument is moot considering that Senate Republicans scheduled votes strategically so that then-Senator Jeff Sessions could push Education Secretary Betsy DeVos through the Senate before he was officially confirmed as attorney general. Cabinet nominees who continue voting while awaiting confirmation face concerns that their votes could be used as fodder to undermine their approval.

Trump has erroneously claimed that Democratic obstructionism has produced the longest wait time in history for his Cabinet nominees — Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s first HHS secretary, wasn’t confirmed until April 28. At the beginning of February, however, Trump had the fewest number of confirmed cabinet members in at least the last quarter century.

Ryan Zinke is the first Cabinet nominee in Montana’s history, and underscores why confirmation delays can be problematic for his state. An AWOL member of Congress is a big loss for Montana, especially relative to more populous states like South Carolina and Georgia that also have representatives nominated for Trump’s Cabinet.

Rep. Zinke’s conspicuous absence from the House floor highlights an unintended consequence of continued obstructionism. For small states like Montana, expecting sitting representatives to abstain from voting while awaiting confirmation is an effective gag order. Questions of conflict of interest are real, but must be weighed against the costs they incur. Can being tapped for a Cabinet post preclude someone from voting even while they remain on the payroll of the voters that elected them?

Peregrine Frissell

Peregrine Frissell is an intern at the Washington Monthly. He has previously worked for papers in Connecticut, Montana and Kathmandu, Nepal and is a graduate of the School of Journalism at the University of Montana.