Eye on Washington: The Shutdown & the New Congress

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The Shutdown

The full effects of the partial shutdown of the federal government may not seem obvious to people who are not federal workers or contractors who are forced to go on unpaid leave or work without pay, who interact with federal agencies or public lands, or those who rely on federal safety net programs. But the effects are far-reaching.

The U.S. Coast Guard is one of the agencies that is shut down, only staffed by “essential employees.” Though some rescue staff are working, there is no support staff, and they will miss paychecks. Other important work such as monitoring marine pollution and illegal activities has stopped.

National parks and forests are also unfunded and down to essential employees due to the shutdown. The media has been full of coverage of the unsafe and unsanitary conditions and destructive behavior that has resulted from lack of staff. Real environmental damage is being done due to lack of supervision and enforcement, as well as illegal off-road vehicle use—resulting in damage that could take decades to recover from. Timely research and environmental monitoring provides data that cannot be replaced, and will forever be missing. Research to spread knowledge goes unpublished and unknown.

Four conservation groups asked President Trump to “fully fund the government” to bring employees back to work or else close all parks and public lands “to prevent irreparable harm to our nation’s conservation heritage.”

“Without professional staff on site to manage these properties, we have witnessed a rash of destructive acts and habitat degradation, including illegal dumping, off-roading, vandalism of buildings, cut locks, rammed gates, and human waste left beside closed bathrooms, or along trails and in habitat—the adverse impacts upon our nation’s cherished lands and waters could take years to recover,” stated the National Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Retirees Association. Is this any way to treat the nation’s most treasured natural and historic resources, the core of our national legacy?

The New Congress

Although the Democrats now have a significant majority in the House of Representatives, the Republican majority actually grew in the U.S. Senate. The Senate has a key role in confirming presidential appointees, such as the recently announced nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be Director of the EPA. Wheeler is expected to be an aggressive follow-up act to Scott Pruitt in his  deregulatory agenda. The House, however, has great influence on agency work through budgets and oversight. Discussions on Capitol Hill with the NEC indicate that the new committee chairs are anxious and willing to provide that oversight. The new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and other Democratic leaders have assured us that climate change will be the banner conservation issue for this Congress. While there are concerns about agency heads, there is an excitement to forge ahead with important public lands bills and marine protections.

In the first week of the new Congress, two bills exemplify the partisan divide even in Northern California. Congressman Huffman’s first bill to be reintroduced, which the NEC supports, would prohibit oil exploration off the coast of California. By comparison, Rep. LaMalfa, R-CA 1st District just east of Huffman’s District, introduced HR243: “To exempt certain wildfire mitigation activities from certain environmental requirements, etc.,” which would deny public input on actions on hundreds of thousands of acres of federal forests by eliminating road clearing along forest roads for fire safety. There are other plans for fire safety along roads and near communities in fire-prone forests, but those plans retain public and robust scientific input through the analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Congressman Huffman has indicated he intends to reintroduce his “Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act” and Senator Harris is expected to reintroduce her Senate companion bill as well.

New Chairs in the House of Representatives 

Natural Resources: Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ)

Grijalva may be the longest, loudest voice of support for almost every conservation issue that concerns the NEC and other conservation organizations. He was vocal in his opposition to shrinking National Monuments and has hosted panels and symposia on the importance of the Endangered Species Act. He will be a critic of GOP efforts to shrink national monuments, limit the Endangered Species Act, and expand offshore drilling and energy production on federal lands. He may try to find common ground with the minority party in order to find a solution to permanent funding for the Federal Land and Water
Conservation Fund. He has received numerous conservation awards.

Agriculture:  Collin Peterson (D-MN)

Peterson is a conservative Democrat who won a 15th term in a rural district that Trump carried by more than 60 percent in 2016. Peterson is not expected to be a champion for the conservation community in important areas like climate change, but he may be a crucial voice on public lands bills.

Appropriations:  Nita Lowey (D-NY)

Lowrey, in her 16th term in Congress, is the first woman to lead the Appropriations Committee. She is expected to push back on the administration’s  cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and important environmental research. She is a strong proponent of clean water  and routinely sides with

Budget:  John Yarmuth (D-KY)

Yarmuth is not the typical Kentucky politician. Though he votes his concerns for the bourbon distillers in his state including fighting climate change, he is also a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he has opposed his state’s coal interests by opposing mountaintop coal mining.

Energy and Commerce:  Frank Pallone (D-NJ)

Pallone has received some bad press lately regarding donations his campaign has received from big oil and gas companies. He is also somewhat skeptical of climate change impacts but, nevertheless, will chair the first committee hearing that will focus on ways to fight global warming. Since New Jersey is full of toxic Superfund clean-up sites, he is expected to support funding for the EPA Superfund program and expanding preventative environmental protections.

Foreign Affairs: Eliot Engel (D-NY)

Engel was not happy when the current administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord.  He called it an abdication of the U.S. leadership in a “global crisis.”  He firmly believes the U.S. needs to cut its carbon emissions and has supported advancement of automobiles that run on alternative energy sources.

Intelligence:  Adam Schiff (D-CA)

Much of Schiff’s time and energy will be taken with oversight of the many investigations into the current administration and foreign influence in our national elections. Schiff also understands the importance of climate change, saying there is “no issue more critical to the future of our world and community than protecting the environment and ensuring that we are investing in clean and renewable energy.”

Judiciary: Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)

The Trump Administration may find a roadblock to its deregulation mania. Nadler is not afraid to aggressively push back on undermining the environmental regulations assigned to the EPA and other agencies. He has not been shy about raising pointed questions regarding the legal defense fund created by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.