A Terrible Idea: Letting Government Run Itself

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Republicans on the campaign trail and in the statehouse profess they believe in smaller, less intrusive government. Likewise, Democrats continually promise “open and transparent” interaction between the government and the public.

So why are both parties now moving aggressively at the state and federal level to cut the public out of government decision-making?

One might think the Montana debacle over the U.S. Forest Service deciding to “categorically exclude” the proposed Holland Lake Lodge sale and development would have sent a powerful message that the public deserves and demands to be given the facts and the time to review and comment on government proposals and actions.

But that appears to not be the case. Public outrage forced the Forest Service to abandon its attempt to operate in secret — and when given the chance to comment, thousands of people opposed the sale and forced the agency to cancel its foregone approval. The district ranger was reassigned, but that’s a tiny slap on the wrist for attempting to exclude the public the agency claims “to serve” — and who also pay for their salaries, benefits and retirement.

Yet, while the Forest Service is operating under Democratic President Joe Biden, the state bureaucracy is controlled by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte — and it’s up to the same bad act.

As noted in Tom Lutey’s recent article: “Montana environmental regulators took heat this week for initially giving the public just 10 days to weigh in on a proposed landfill near Shepherd — seemingly at the request of the developer. The mistake, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality clarified Thursday, was ever suggesting that there would be more time. The government now intends to strike all references from its permit forms. To avoid potential future confusion, given that a 30-day public comment period is not required in statute or rule, this specific narrative will be removed from all applications…”

Perhaps the governor can explain how cutting the public out of agency decision-making leads to less intrusive government — especially when a project is very intrusive on their homes, families, lives and environment.

Gianforte’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks has likewise declared bureaucrats will now determine what’s sufficient for the public. As Eric Merchant, the agency’s “MEPA coordinator” in the director’s office wrote: “FWP policy now dictates a 15-day or 30-day public comment period for EA-level MEPA review. The length of the public comment period is dependent on the level of environmental review conducted for a given project and the time deemed necessary for the public to appropriately engage.” Acronyms aside, the salient point is that the agency “dictates” the “time deemed necessary for the public to appropriately engage.”

And again, this is from people who claim to be “public servants.”

While bureaucrats are paid to be at their jobs, the public is quite busy doing other things — like working, raising families, keeping a roof over their heads. Most people cannot simply drop everything to quickly review and comment on agency actions in the short time period a government agency “dictates” or “deems sufficient.”

And if there are questions or additional information requested? Good luck — file a Freedom of Information Act with the feds or a “right to know” request to the state. And then wait while the comment period expires.

Cutting the public out means government runs itself — a very bad idea no matter if you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or neither. The Biden administration has already been sued over its attempts to exclude the public — and it’s a good bet Gianforte’s administration will likewise wind up in court over short-changing public review periods on agency actions.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.