Getting out of town!
With the days leading up to the August recess, Members of Congress couldn’t wait to get out of town. With temperatures in Washington hovering in the 90’s, the dream of finding a cooler place was on everyone’s mind. But before they could flee, the July 31st deadline for re-authorizing federal transportation programs was staring them right in the face.
The Senate offered the most entertainment when a grand bargain on a multi-year transportation bill was hatched by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). This was a deal no one was expecting, but one that gave life to the possibility that the Senate might be able to pass a multi-year transportation reauthorization bill (6-year extension, funding for only the first 3 years). Mixing that with votes on killing Obamacare, denying funding to Planned Parenthood, and reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, the normal transportation issues seemed mundane and totally out of place.
We all had a brief scare when Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) filed an amendment that would have eliminated authorization for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). Since the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) falls under the umbrella of TAP, RTP would have been swept away as well if the Lee amendment had been adopted by the Senate.
We spent 24 hours trying to determine how great a threat the Lee amendment posed, so we withheld notifying ARRA members and asking you to spring into action. Once we determined that Senator Lee would not be offering his amendment, we knew an ARRA alert was not needed.
In the end, the House passed another short term extension, this time for three months, and the Senate in turn accepted that extension. The Senate also completed its work on a multi-year bill and the House will begin a similar task after Labor Day. For the first time in a long time, we believe that passage of a multi-year transportation bill is within the realm of possibility. This will be good news for RTP.
House floor debate on Interior appropriations for FY16, H.R. 2882, took an unexpected turn when an intense controversy broke out over the flying of Confederate flags in military cemeteries. The end result was that the bill was yanked from the floor pending some resolution on how to deal with the flag issue. Our best guess is that sometime in September, the Interior bill will be folded into an Omnibus appropriations measure in order to fund the federal government when the new fiscal year begins on October 1st.
Before the flag controversy erupted, there were several very interesting issues (called riders) added to the bill. One amendment specified that no funds could be used to promulgate a rule that lists the sage grouse as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. A second amendment would block monument designations in seven western states though the President beat the Congress to the punch on one of those designations by designating the Basin and National Range Monument in Nevada.
The House approved H.R. 2647, a bill which would allow for the establishment of a fund to cover the cost of fighting wildfires when costs exceed appropriated funds, thus ending the practice of federal agencies needing to reprogram funds from one government program to another. (Recreation programs always tend to be raided). The legislation would allow for the establishment of a fire disaster fund to help address the ongoing problem of funding the cost of fighting wildfires, something we have had an interest in for a long time. The Senate is working on similar legislation and we are encouraged that we are seeing traction in both bodies that will permanently address this ongoing problem.
Add three more to the list of monument designations by President Obama since he has taken office. The total now stands at nineteen! The recent three were added in July. The one in Texas, the Waco Mammoth National Monument, is all of five acres and had strong support among the Texas delegation. The second one, Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, is in Northern California and totals more than 330,000 acres. The most controversial one exceeded 700,000 acres in Nevada, the Basin and Range National Monument. One would think that at this rate, there is nothing left to designate, but that is only wishful thinking. While the intent is always to protect, sadly the end result is to deny or limit access to these public lands.
While escaping Washington in August because of the high outside temperatures is always a good idea, when Congress returns after Labor Day, the agenda of must do legislation is large which will result in rising temperatures in the halls of the Capitol. We already mentioned highway reauthorization and appropriations, but other issues include the question of raising the national debt ceiling, reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, and the consideration of the Iranian nuclear deal. It will be an intense time. Until then, we are taking a responsible course of action by planning to enjoy the rest of the summer and we hope you will do the same.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA)