Intra-party conservation fight becomes new legislative roadblock

A fight over federalism is dividing Republicans in Congress.

GOP lawmakers are split over the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a popular, bipartisan, 50-year-old program that diverts a portion of oil and gas royalties to environmental improvements. The fund's authorization expired two weeks ago, and Congress has not yet moved to reauthorize it.

The showdown now threatens a number of other priorities. Two Republican senators facing tough reelection fights next year are holding up a bipartisan deal to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act in a bid for leverage to reauthorize the fund, but they are running into resistance from states-rights' diehards who refuse to provide new authority without changing how the program operates to boost states' sway over the money and reduce federal land purchases. Reauthorizing the fund also has been floated as a potential bargaining chip in the ongoing debate over oil exports.

A majority of the House is on record supporting a reauthorization, and 62 senators were set to vote yes in January — before three changed their votes at the last minute making it impossible to clear a filibuster. Normally, that would be enough, but leadership has not scheduled any vote to reauthorize the fund amid resistance from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. That has supporters of the fund looking to hitch a ride somewhere else.

"The real challenge is a process one," former Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said. "Are there other bills moving that have really large Democratic and Republican support, which are likely going to pass, and this would be a good complement [for]?"

Scarlett, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is now managing director for public policy at The Nature Conservancy, said the LWCF should be reauthorized without changes.

Created in 1965, the fund was authorized to accrue $900 million per year, mostly from offshore oil and gas royalties. Congress has appropriated an average of $340 million of that every year for the past decade for state and federal agencies to restore wildlife habitat, improve national parks and acquire new parcels of land, among other purposes.

States have watched the share of the fund under their direction fall dramatically, from at least 40 percent of the funds in the first dozen years the program was around to about 12 percent over the last decade, according to the Congressional Research Service. The fund has received nearly $17 billion in appropriations since its creation, some of which has been diverted to unrelated federal programs. Critics like Bishop say changes are needed first to tip the balance back toward states.

"This administration is misusing the fund," Bishop said in an interview, declaring himself "tired of the same old crap" and vowing to "do something big and good" to reform the conservation program. "I would like to appropriate more" for the fund, he added, "but if you're going to do it, you've got to do it in a way that solves problems."

Lawmakers have long known that its authorization would expire this year, but Bishop has shown no urgency to propose concrete reforms. In a letter sent last week, seven days after the authorization expired, he requested a detailed inventory of properties the federal government purchased with LWCF funds, among other information he said he would need before considering LWCF legislation. Bishop has not embraced a bipartisan reform bill negotiated in the Senate that would guarantee states see a larger share of the fund.

The Interior Department's chief appropriator, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.),acknowledged in a recent interview that he could keep funding the program even without reauthorization, but he said he is deferring to Bishop on its future. "I support" the fund, he said, "but it needs to be reformed, and I think [Bishop] is working to do that."

Dark clouds began surrounding the fund long before its federal authorization expired on Sept. 30. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) had filibuster-proof 62 votes to permanently green-light the fund in January when he introduced an amendment to Senate legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. But three Republicans changed their votes at the last minute amid talk of resistance in the House.

Bishop and other conservative critics lament that the fund's original mission of providing public access to recreational lands has gotten lost, and it has primarily become money for Washington to acquire new land — what he slammed as a "slush fund for Interior." Critics say the government cannot maintain the land it already has and should not be acquiring more.

Democrats like Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva says Congress should permanently reauthorize the fund and turn it at least partly into a mandatory entitlement program freed from the annual appropriations process.

Every House Democrat supports reauthorizing the LWCF, and 32 Republicans are either cosponsoring legislation to do so or have signed letters backing the program. That adds up to a majority of the lower chamber, Grijalva has noted. But he has not said whether the program's backers would pursue a discharge petition to secure a floor vote on the fund, a tactic that last week paid off for the first time in 13 years for supporters of the Export-Import Bank.

“The House has an opportunity to embrace a bipartisan bill,” Grijalva said last week, slamming Bishop by name for leading a “shutdown” of the fund. Last week alone, members of the Natural Resources panel briefly boycotted one markup and used another to implore Bishop to take up a reauthorization bill.

Bishop has dismissed his critics.

"It's cute — they're cute," he said of Democrats. "I realize this is all PR posturing. That's why I'm not worried about it."

As the impasse drags on, it's ensnared other energy and environmental priorities. Burr and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), both of whom are defending their seats in 2016, are pressing for a vote on reauthorization during the upper chamber's consideration of an update to the Toxic Substances Control Act, a painstaking bipartisan compromise to reform the nation's decades-old marquee chemical safety law. That bill's sponsors are still working to head off their push.

Burr and Ayotte have "taken the wrong hostage on this," said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a chief backer of the effort to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Some greens also want to see Burr and Ayotte find another vehicle. One approach floated in recent weeks would pair reauthorization of the fund with an end to the crude export ban, perhaps as part of a larger year-end budget deal. National Wildlife Foundation President Collin O'Mara recently called for a dialogue on a plan to mitigate the impact of unrestricted oil exports through permanent reauthorization of the conservation fund, as well as extension of renewable energy incentives and other environmentalist priorities.

"This debate is happening," O'Mara said of the GOP's crude exports crusade and its growing number of Democratic backers. "It's up to the conservation community to decide whether they want to be a part of it."

Elsewhere in the Senate, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and her Democratic counterpart, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, hashed out a deal earlier this year aimed at ensuring the fund lives on with a boost to state-level funding and a new pot of money to fix the maintenance backlog at national parks. The agreement would address one of Bishop’s top concerns by setting a 40-percent floor for state programs’ share of the fund, the same size as the federal carve-out.

The Murkowski-Cantwell approach also sends a significant share of its state-level funding increases to forest legacy and endangered species programs that are more federally directed, a House GOP aide said, while Bishop wants to see changes that provide states more autonomy.

Murkowski said she has a "genuine interest" in successfully reauthorization and hopes her framework with Cantwell will become "the path forward." But she acknowledged that may be unlikely anytime soon.

"I'm just hoping," she said, "the House can get through their leadership issues and we can get focused on some of the things in front of us."

By:  Elana Schor
Source: Politico Pro