Eye on Washington – Oct/Nov 2018

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

The 115th Congress (2017-2018) is about to wrap up most of its business. Elections in November will determine the make-up of both the House and Senate for the 116th Congress which will be sworn in January 2019.

Looking back, the 115th Congress has been a never-ending struggle for conservationists. With the Republican Party in charge of both chambers, they have been emboldened to attempt more anti-conservation legislation than we’ve seen in any recent Congress. Legislation to alter or attack the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been, and will always be a recurring action, but this Congress came up with riders attacking everything from bears to bees. Thankfully, organized work between local grassroots groups and national groups has successfully pushed back on most pieces of bad legislation.
The unabashed attacks on our environment have been a trigger for strong reaction by conservationists. But let’s be honest, it is difficult for volunteer organizations to withstand the constant onslaught and moneyed lobbyists for everything from pesticides to plastic bottles to coal-and nuclear waste-producing powered plants. The battle is lopsided against conservation.

As Congress wraps up appropriations for the 2019 budget, almost all anti-environment riders have been removed from bills and Congress has stood up to President Trump by authorizing larger budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior, and Agriculture than he had wanted. Conservation programs have been retained and Congressman Huffman even introduced a bill to restore some forest lands, designate new wilderness areas and wild rivers and boost the recreation economy of Northwest California. However, the Trump administration is clearly determined to roll back environmental rules such as clean air and water standards, and punish states that attempt to impose stricter standards. Congress has not been an effective check on the overall anti-environment agenda.

Looking forward is more difficult; will Congress be better or worse? By the time this article is published, the nation will be gearing up for an important election. The November mid-term elections will determine which party will be in the majority of both the Senate and House. If nothing else, the 115th Congress has shown clearly the advantages of being in the majority. The majority appoints the chairman of every committee and subcommittee in that chamber. They determine the legislative agenda and priorities, and they determine the rules regarding how committee hearings are conducted. Currently there is, in effect, no firewall against bad legislation except the voice of the people. If the November elections do not result in a change in Congress, the expectation is for an emboldened anti-conservation agenda that will require an even more heroic effort by conservation organizations to protect environmental and public health. If one or more chamber flips, that chamber or chambers will not only carry the potential to change the very nature of the legislative agenda but will also have the power to stop much of the worst actions by both Congress and the administration.

Budget Appropriations

Appropriations will be complete by the print date of this EcoNews unless Congress and the President can’t agree and shut down the government to negotiate on budget differences. At present it is expected that most of the anti-environmental riders in the House version of the Farm Bill will be removed by negotiations in the House-Senate conference committee. The committee also discussed positive programs for organic farming, land conservation, and rural jobs in clean energy. However, if the more politically charged new requirements for Food Stamps (SNAP) recipients are not worked out, those riders might be back on the table. Rep. Conaway (R-TX) and Senator Stabenow (D-MI) have not come to an agreement. President Trump has weighed in supporting Conaway. Stabenow pushed back saying: “In case you missed it, the Senate passed a bipartisan Farm Bill that got 86 votes—the most ever.”

“I’m not letting politics distract me from working across the aisle to finalize a good bill that will deliver certainty for farmers and families in Michigan and across the country.”
This is the bill most likely to come down to the wire at the September 30 deadline, as this issue of EcoNews goes to print.
Volunteer policy intern Jose Cervantes contributed to this article.