Tester’s New Friends

Montana Senator has raised $1.8M from bankers, lobbyists

Jon Tester / AP

Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.) is bankrolling his reelection campaign with huge contributions from the bankers, lobbyists, and insiders he blasted during his first Senate run in 2006.

Tester has raised $10 million in 2011 and 2012—nearly double that of his Republican challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg. He has overcome the pratfalls of seeking office in a sparsely populated, rural state by raising money from the industries he oversees on the Appropriations and Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committees.

Tester raised nearly $1.8 million for his campaign and political action committee from bankers, financiers, and lobbyists for the 2012 cycle, making him the top recipient of lobbying cash in the U.S. Senate and number two fundraiser from commercial banks, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The cash came in 2011, after Tester reversed his early support for a cap on debit card fees. He unsuccessfully attempted to scrap Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin’s amendment to lower bank fees on debit card transactions from an average of 44 cents to 12 cents. The massive fee decrease is expected to put a large dent in the $17 billion banks and credit card companies earned from the fees in 2009.

Those fees drive up costs for business owners and merchants, leading to higher prices for consumers, according to Ronna Alexander, state executive of The Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, a group of small businesses seeking fees that better reflect the 4 cents it costs banks to process cards.

"His decision to support banks and oppose debit and credit card reforms have harmed merchants and working families but helped him build his campaign war chest with hundreds of thousands of dollars from the financial services industry," she said.

"Sen. Tester had the opportunity to help consumers and small business keep costs down during a time of economic hardship, and he chose to align himself with the banks."

Reformers, Alexander among them, are now driving to impose the same type of limitations on credit card transaction fees, making Tester’s presence on the banking committee even more crucial to bankers. Prices are set by Visa and MasterCard, a practice that has given the U.S. the highest average credit card fees in the industrial world.

Tester’s evolving position on predatory banking practices runs counter to the homegrown farmer image that carried him to victory in 2006.

"You’ve got to have somebody who will go to Washington, D.C. and fight for you … I won’t sell you down the road by cutting deals with K Street lobbyists," he said in 2006. "[Montanans] need the greatest representation not encumbered by high dollared lobbyists."

Alexander said that Washington has changed Tester’s priorities, leading him to work on behalf of big business, rather than his constituents.

"Sen. Tester wants to keep the status quo, which means no competition and billions of dollars in profits for banks at the expense of consumers," Alexander said.

Tester has received tens of thousands of dollars from the largest banks and credit card companies in the country. Eight of his top 20 donors come from the financial services industry. Visa, which together with MasterCard controls 80 percent of the credit market, is his third-largest contributor, pumping more than $47,000 into the campaign.

Tester’s office did not return emails seeking comment.