Update from Capitol Hill: what’s not moving in the Congressional gridlock
Pendleton, Ore. – Between the BLM’s 250 million acres and the Forest Service’s 90 million acres, ranchers in the western U.S. manage a vast portion of the nation for the benefit of their fellow citizens, said Public Lands Council (PLC) Executive Director Dustin Van Liew at the PLC annual meeting in Pendleton, Ore. in mid-September.
There are 30,000 grazing permits held across the West, and Van Liew said half the commercial beef cowherd spends at least some of their time on the federal allotments, along with 48 percent of the ewe herd. “An integral part of our industry is raised and grazed in the West,” he said.
Van Liew, who spends a lot of his time in Washington, D.C. on behalf of federal lands grazing, said, “They don’t always look at the facts and understand the issue – they’ll look at the stacks of letters and count them to decide what decision they’ll take. When asking for assistance from D.C., ask two or three of your friends or neighbors to send the same letter.
“We have to be there to make sure Congress and the administration understands the facts and we need to provide our voice to combat the false and negative rhetoric from extremist groups,” he continued.
An issue at the top of PLC’s list are the proposed new monument designations from the leaked Department of the Interior document that came to light last winter.
“Those monuments would encompass 13 million acres of Western rangelands, and the President has the authority to designate them under the Antiquities Act of 1906 without any government insight or input from affected local entities,” said Van Liew.
In response, two pieces of legislation have been introduced that would amend the Antiquities Act. HR5580 is known as the National Monument Designation Transparency and Accountability Act, and it would require Congressional approval of any monument designation within two years. Without approval, the designation would cease and could not be reintroduced in the future. Companion legislation in the Senate asks for the same thing.
“It’s not likely to move in this Congress,” said Van Liew of the two pieces of legislation and the “deadlock” on Capitol Hill. “But it provides a good starting point, where people realize there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. We’ll work to reintroduce it in the new Congress next year.”
Second on the list is the Death Tax, for which PLC had just signed on to a letter regarding the Family Farm and Ranch Estate Tax, which would exempt ag operations from the tax, so long as that land stays in agriculture.
“It’s imperative that something is done to bring a solution to the unique industry and allow them to pass on the estate,” said Van Liew. “We fully support the two solutions in the House and Senate, except for a caveat in one of them that includes a $750,000 income cap limit. We don’t believe we should pick and choose estates – it needs to cover all agriculture.”
Van Liew doesn’t think the Death Tax modifications will be made before the elections in November, but he said there’s a high probably a lame duck session will be called, with the chance to get it moved.
Of climate change legislation, Van Liew’s first remarks were, “It’s dead.”
“As far as a cap on emissions – it’s not going to happen in this Congress. They may try to pass a piecemeal deal for large industrial emitters, or some legislation to answer concern over the oil spill,” he added.
However, he said the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created decades ago, has had legislation introduced. “It was authorized for $900 million, which was subject to Congressional approval. Between 1965 and 2002, the fund has spend $8.7 billion and acquired about 4.5 million acres of new federal land. The piece introduced would require automatic funding of the fund - $900 million per year, without government oversight.”
He said that would make it a fund for agencies or the administration to use to continue to expand land holdings and acquire inholdings, “It could be possibly used in a process to provide land monument designations, so we’re opposed and we’ll work to remove the provision of funding for this account,” he said.
Of appropriations, Van Liew said Congress is so deadlocked with the political head-butting that, even with the huge Democratic majority, they’ve been unable to pass any appropriations bills. “That’s the primary job of Congress, and they’ve been unable to complete the task,” he noted. “In the past they’ve passed a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels. There’s a possibility they won’t even act on this, which begs the question of how the government is funded.”
As in the past, Van Liew said PLC will work to include rider language that will protect grazing permit security, as has happened in the past with continuing resolutions.
Van Liew said changes to the Equal Access to Justice Act, or EAJA, also aren’t likely to move. “We’ll work to reintroduce them next year, hopefully in a friendlier Congress.”
Of removing the word “navigable” from the Clean Water Act, on the grounds that it wasn’t intended to limit the government’s authority of water and that removing the word would bring the act back to its original intent, Van Liew said, “The word appears in the act 82 times. I believe Congress knew what they were doing when they placed the word in there, and said the rest is left to states and local areas to regulate.”
Looking toward the November elections, Van Liew said people speculate there are between 39 and 80 seats to be gained for Republicans. “Republicans seem to have momentum going into the election, because of the state of the economy and the regulatory burden placed on Americans by the administration and Congress. We’re in a better situation working with our friends on Capitol Hill, which offers a check on the administration’s power. But, a month is a long time in political life.”