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Ransom payments are ’the worst possible thing to be happening:' Sen. Tester

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Senator Jon Tester joins Yahoo Finance to discuss his plans to combat essential issues such as affordable housing, national security after attacks on American infrastructure, and the Rural Physicians Workforce Protection Act he hopes to pass in the Senate.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

- Well, headlines were made earlier this week when a ransomware attack on JBS' systems threatened some of the meat supply here in the US and bringing up more cyber security concerns across critical infrastructure here in the US. And as lawmakers continue to look at this issue, we want to bring in Democratic Senator Jon Tester from Montana. Certainly focus on the issues at least as it relates, Senator, to the agriculture part of the equation. So I just kind of want to start with how concerned you are by the JBS news that we saw and-- and really what seems to be an increasingly vulnerable critical infrastructure, at least on the technical side here in the US.

JON TESTER: Well, I'm very concerned about it. You know, consolidation in the marketplace of agriculture there's cattle, grain, that has been a big issue for a long, long time. And what we saw with the breach of JBS shows us we've got another problem. Not only is the marketplace severely concentrated, but now bad actors can attack this pretty easily, and have. And JBS was a prime example. And if it happened to them, it can happen to others.

So the real question here is, as you've already pointed out, what are we going to do? And I think there's a number of things we need to do. We need to go back to the Packers and Stockyards Act passed 100 years ago and make sure that it's fully enforced. And then we've got to make sure these companies share information with-- with our intelligence groups within the government who deal with these issues all the time. And I think that's how we're going to be able to get to it-- get to a solution to the problem.

Look, the bottom line is this, this has happened. It's happened multiple times over the last month. It's going to continue to happen. When companies start using better computer hygiene, I guess that's the word, that will help a lot. But we've got to share information. And what these hacks have shown us is the concentration in our food system, in our food chain, is not good. It's not good for the consumers, it's not good for the country, it's certainly not good for the folks in production agriculture.

- Well, and as you-- as you alluded to, Senator-- it's Julie, here-- certainly it's not limited to the agricultural industries, right? We've seen it at utilities, I believe the MTA in New York City recently revealed a hack. And obviously it's not in these organizations interest to be hacked, right? They should have better security. What is their willingness, though, to cooperate with authorities if that is part of the answer? One would think they would want all the help they could get.

JON TESTER: Well, there has been hesitancy. And you might say, why would there be hesitancy? It's money. People are concerned maybe their stocks might drop if people know fully what happened. But the bottom line is, this is bigger than money. This is about critical infrastructure for this country, whether it's in food, whether it's in energy, whether it's in water, as you pointed out. And information sharing is really, really important in all this so that we can find out who did it on a timely basis and hold those people accountable.

I don't think individual businesses have the capacity to do that. And, in fact, what we've seen is that the ransoms have been paid and, in my opinion, that's the worst possible thing that can be happening. So there's-- there's work to be done here, a lot of work to be done here. It shows about some inherent problems we have in our food systems that we need to deal with in a common sense way. And it also shows that we're very vulnerable to cyber attacks and we need to do better on that front too. And it's one of the reasons, as the Chairman of the Defense Appropriations, that cyber is my number one priority.

- Senator, so much focus in our world of financial markets on inflationary being transitory or not transitory but you-- you are a working farmer. What are you seeing on your farm right now in terms of inflation and do you think it's transitory?

JON TESTER: Look, I'm seeing some concerns around inflation. Now, whether it is a bump in the economy because of the pent up demand of the pandemic or whether it's something that we're going to see continue to move upward is yet to be proven. But trust me, the experts I talked to say it's a bump, it's going to level off. By the end of the year, we're going to be back to where we have been over the last 20 or so years.

But-- but the bottom line really is, it's a concern for me right now. I will tell you that when housing prices are through the roof because you can't buy a pickup-- I do my own repair work-- parts have gone up noticeably. So we've got some challenges out there. We've got to make sure that-- that-- that we're dealing with that in a common sense way also.

- Well, and Senator, on that point, speaking of your home state, you guys are getting another congressional seat next year. There's been a huge influx of out-of-staters moving into Montana, not just in the pandemic, over the last couple of years. I'm just curious what you're hearing from your constituents on the pressures they're seeing in their home markets because, you know, I can pull up a Zillow listing for Bozeman and Whitefish-- I mean, it is-- it is really crazy out there.

JON TESTER: Look, you're absolutely correct and it's really an impediment to our economy across this country. Montana is not excluded from this. I think affordable housing, workforce housing, you know, the president put in this infrastructure bill. I think it's important we address it. If we don't address it in infrastructure, address it somewhere else because it's not allowing our economy to be able to expand the way it needs to expand.

And look, we are in competition with China economically and militarily too as far as that goes. We need to make sure that we do everything we need to do at the federal level to make sure that our economy can continue to grow if we're going to be continuing our position as a leader in the world and housing is a big part of that. So I think we need to address it.

Housing prices, you're right, whether it's Bozeman, Missoula, just about anywhere. In fact, I will say anywhere, housing prices have gone up markedly in our state and it's-- it's been a real anvil for business to be able to hire people for a place to live. It's been a problem with-- with businesses moving into an area to be able to expand that economy. It's a big problem. We need to deal with the federal level. There are some programs out there, tax incentives and other things that we can do to help move the housing program along, but it needs to be a priority for Congress.

- And related to the housing issue, I know you're putting forth a bill to address the medical professional shortage that has been seen in some rural areas. And we were chatting in the break, I mean, local in your state can be 90 minutes, two hours away. But in the pandemic, that wasn't good enough for a lot of people. What are you-- what are you hoping to kind of-- what bottleneck are you hoping to unlock there for your state and many others that really face a critical shortage of health care professionals?

JON TESTER: I'll get to the doctor residency thing in a second but I will tell you one of the solutions is good broadband and that's been deficient too. So good broadband for telehealth is one way. Another way is this bill that you just talked about that I'm carrying to allow small hospitals to be able to have residencies.

And I think that what's been shown is when a doctor does a residency in an area, they can to stay in that area. And I think if we can get these folks in to more rural parts of our state, they'll tend to stay there just like they do in more urban parts. And I think that is-- that is good for rural America. I can tell you the small town I come from hasn't had a doc in probably 25 years. We've got physicians assistants, they do great work, but it'd be great to have a doc too. And in order to do that, I think expanding the residencies is one of those keys.

- All right, Senator Jon Tester of Montana. Senator, really appreciate you taking some time to talk with us this morning. And I look forward to visiting your state in a couple of months time and hopefully--

JON TESTER: I look forward to having you out to the great state of Montana and bring all your friends too. It's a marvelous--

- That's right, I will. I fully conflicted here. I love Montana. All right, Senator, I really appreciate the time. Thanks-- thanks so much.