Saturday, June 16, 2012

Taking a Stand

The problem with politicians these days is that they too often take knee-jerk positions on any topic. Driven by the intense partisanship that exists on both sides of the aisle, you rarely hear a senator or congressman say, "You know, there are two sides to that issue. Yes, I have my own personal feelings, but my job is to listen to the people who elected me, some for it, some against it. I will then do my best to convey those feelings to my colleagues, and see if we can reach an agreement which will represent the will of the people while respecting all viewpoints."

Indeed, recent elections have shown that approach to be fraught with peril. A number of legislators with a history of carefully trying to seek middle ground have been axed in both red and blue states, or have decided it's not even worth trying anymore. And so a member of Congress these days who says out loud that he or she will carefully consider all options before making a decision is, to borrow Jack Kennedy's phrase, a true profile in courage.

And so it is with Max Baucus. The senior Democratic senator from the great state of Montana displayed his legislative evenhandedness in response to a bill sponsored by Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi in May. It would have been easy to sign on to Enzi's legislation, and gather accolades from like-minded voters. But Baucus isn't taking the easy way out. In the words of a press release, "Max is focused on passing legislation that will help Montana businesses create jobs, and looks forward to hearing from Montanans before taking a position." Courage, indeed.

The legislation in question which requires such soul searching? That would be Senate 3248, the "National Bison Legacy Act" to designate the bison as our national mammal.

First, the obvious question: we don't have a national mammal? That would be right. We have a national bird (bald eagle), a national flower, (rose) and a national tree (oak). We had a national Christmas tree, a Colorado blue spruce that was planted on the Ellipse south of the White House, but it died last month. And we do have a lot of other national symbols, from Uncle Sam to Mount Rushmore to the Statue of Liberty. But no mammal.

Obviously we can't call ourselves a real nation without one. Bangladesh has as the Ganges River dolphin and Mexico has the Jaguar. Papua New Guinea has the Dugong, a walrus-seal-manatee kind of thing. And Australia officially has the kangaroo and unofficially the Koala. True, neither are mammals, but rather marsupials. But it's Australia and they're adorable, so cut them some slack.

But back to Enzi's bill. It has no practical effects in terms of conservation or funding. However, in a time of such bitter divide in our country, he sees it as one way for us to bridge the gap that separates us. Says Enzi, "The North American bison is an enduring symbol of America, its people and a way of life." Dave Carter puts it in perspective from a political standpoint: "The one thing we do note is that there's broad support for the bison act, not only just from senators in the West, but across the country and across both parties. This is a non-partisan issue, and it should be a non-controversial issue." However, it's worth noting that Carter is the executive director of the National Bison Association, and so is squarely in the pocket of, well, Big Bison.

Of course, there is a contrary point of view. In Montana, livestock producers and property rights advocates have filed lawsuits to stop the spread of an animal that ranchers say can tear down fences, spread disease and compete with domestic cattle for grass. In Boulder, Colorado, city officials rebuffed a proposal from Ted Turner to donate a bison herd for viewing along U.S. Highway 36, citing cost and public opposition. And we haven't even heard from the other candidates. While proponents are rolling out a "Vote Bison" campaign, there is no word if some deep-pocketed donor is being courted as we speak. After all, Sheldon Adelson backed Newt Gingrich. In that light, is "Vote Cow" really out of the question?

Clearly the national mood needs to be sampled, and debate is just beginning. All those who feel that Congress has lost its stature as a deliberative body are on notice. And kudos to Baucus for, well, not stampeding with the herd. Vote Bison? Maybe. But let's make sure Max gets the input he needs to make an informed decision. Our Founding Fathers would want nothing less.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wants the chipmunk to be named as our national rodent. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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