Lame ducks, by definition, don’t do much.
That’s not good news for a flock of Montana outdoors initiatives awaiting decisions in the final weeks of the 111th Congress. From Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act to Rep. Denny Rehberg’s effort to remove wolves from Endangered Species Act protection, we’re fast approaching the “wait ’til next year” point.
“Nothing is going to pass here without a whole lot of gnashing of the teeth,” Tester said on Thursday from Washington, D.C., where he had just won approval for an amendment exempting small farmers from new regulatory requirements in the food safety bill.
Even though the amendment passed, the whole bill won’t be voted on until Nov. 29, after four more amendments try to squeeze in.
Then there’s a continuing resolution to keep the government running, maybe an omnibus appropriations bill and the Thanksgiving week break most senators and representatives began on Friday. Christmas looms. That leaves roughly two weeks of floor time to finish the nation’s business by Dec. 15.
Several other Montana projects hang in the lame duck cloakroom. They include the final phase of the Montana Legacy Project timberlands sale, the Montana-British Columbia memorandum of understanding on Flathead mining, full funding for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and perhaps an omnibus public lands bill that could sweep some or all of those under its wing.
Tester unveiled S. 1470 in July 2009 to a mix of cheers and jeers. A coalition of sawmill owners, environmentalists and community leaders helped draft the bill and supported it. Opposition came from nearly identical camps.
The bill would create or expand 670,000 acres of wilderness in Montana, confirm recreation opportunities on another 336,000 acres and mandate at least 100,000 acres of logging over the next 15 years on three national forests. It also had the potential to impose some far-reaching changes in how the U.S. Forest Service does business.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signed off on many of those changes in a letter to Tester. In addition to a pledge to “assist you in moving this legislation forward,” Vilsack said the bill “can serve as a model for similar efforts elsewhere.”
But the bill ran into obstacles at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Staff members rewrote it to remove the logging mandate. Tester reposted with a longer time frame and a new way to select acreage for logging. Congress took its summer recess without resuming work on S. 1470, and it hasn’t made any calendar since.
Chances are slim S. 1470 will reach the Senate floor on its own during the lame duck session. But it could be included in a catch-all omnibus public lands bill that many conservation groups are asking for.
“We have started work packaging a large number of public lands bills,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Jeff Bingaman’s spokesman Bill Wicker said last week. “We’re channeling our inner Boy Scout to get it all done.”
Roughly 60 lands bills have passed the committee or at least been through the mark-up process, Wicker said. Bills that haven’t cleared that threshold are much less likely to go directly into an omnibus bill.
“But we have not closed the door to legislation that has not cleared committee,” Wicker said. “The omnibus bill might include some of those as well.”
A couple more long-shot options exist for Tester’s bill. Senators can ask to bring a bill directly to the Senate calendar. But that needs approval from the Senate’s majority leader, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid.
Another tactic would be to offer Tester’s bill as an amendment to a bill that is headed for passage. That too has its difficulties, as few senators are happy about someone else’s baggage putting their own project at risk of controversy.
That leaves the 112th Congress, which starts Jan. 3. Tester said he’ll likely resubmit S. 1470 as it stands.
“The bill still exists in the form that I think is workable and contains the collaborative input we originally started out with,” Tester said. “You submit it as we’ve done it to this point and just keep going.”
Whether wolves can fight their way onto the lame duck docket remains equally unsure. Tester and fellow Montana Sen. Max Baucus have introduced a bill that would let the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorize local wolf management for Idaho and Montana. Rehberg has co-sponsored a bill exempting wolves from the federal Endangered Species Act altogether.
“After spending the last month talking to Montanans about wolf management, there’s a clear consensus that Montana’s self-management must be restored immediately,” Rehberg said on Thursday. “And that any solution must be strong enough to put an end to the federal back-and-forth that’s causing so many problems.”
Hunting advocates throughout the Rocky Mountain West blame the wolf for declines in deer, elk and moose populations, as well as attacks on domestic cattle, sheep and other livestock. Wolves were supposed to be delisted when their population exceeded 300 animals and 30 breeding pairs. But legal and procedural delays prevented the status change, and there are now an estimated 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
In August, a federal lawsuit blocked efforts to delist the wolf in Montana and Idaho, canceling planned hunts for the predator this fall. Idaho subsequently turned all its wolf management responsibilities over to the Fish and Wildlife Service in protest. Montana authorities moved on several different fronts, seeking permission for special hunts, negotiating with lawsuit opponents on a possible settlement and calling for congressional action.
“There is bipartisan support for this approach, and I’m working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to produce a workable solution that will be ready to go before the end of the year,” Rehberg said.
Baucus and Tester did not get their bill to a committee hearing either. But both remain optimistic the provision could be added somewhere before the lame duck dies.
There’s also bipartisan support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. While this legislation hasn’t attracted headlines, it has a much bigger history and impact on the West.
Montana has collected a lot of LWCF funding, according to Madeline Pope of the Trust for Public Lands. Its account bought out gold mining claims on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, paid for conservation easements along the Rocky Mountain Front and helped Missoula buy a swath of Mount Sentinel’s west face.
The LWCF was established in 1965 as a way of buying land for public recreation and conservation. It’s allowed to spend $900 million a year. The dollars come from off-shore oil and gas lease royalties, which produce between $5 billion and $6 billion a year.
But Congress has usually found other needs for that money, and the bank account has almost never been fully filled. In 2007, LWCF only got $138 million.
West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall added a full-funding provision to a major energy bill this summer, but that bill is now stalled in the Senate. Baucus and Bingaman wrote a stand-alone bill a year ago that would not only fully fund it, but reauthorize the program after its current version expires in 2015.
“It’s unlikely it will move during the lame duck session,” Pope said of the energy bill. The Baucus-Bingaman bill may meet the same fate, given its long-term and expensive nature.
“The possible offsets are not popular with other Senate members,” Wicker said. “Electric vehicle legislation got pulled today because of that.”
The LWCF has paid for parts of the Montana Legacy Project, and may contribute more to that 310,000-acre transfer of corporate timberlands into public hands. The third phase of the project is expected to close in early December. It will convey 69,522 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. land to the Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Lands for about $70 million. Those groups, in turn, plan to sell the ground to public agencies.
The president’s budget for fiscal 2011 includes $6 million for this project, and that bill has not yet passed. The remainder will be sought in the next session of Congress, according to TNC Northern Rockies program director Deb Love.
“We are confident our senators are in strong support of this,” Love said. “In this session, the Legacy Project is the top priority.”
A big wild card in the process is the final budget bill. All kinds of last-minute funding and policy decisions could be inserted there.
“A budget bill or continuing resolution is really the only must-pass thing,” Alan Rowsome, the Wilderness Society’s director of conservation planning, said. “We might see a tax-break extender or some other larger issue. But as every day goes by, it’s tough to see how you find floor time for anything else.”
Couple that with the intention of many House members to adjourn as early as possible and the difficulties mount. Rowsome said a bill to keep the government operating must be passed by Dec. 3. Once that’s done, many House members who’ve lost their seats may call it a career and go home.
The Senate may stay longer for some of its solo activities, like appointing judges and consenting on treaties. Any legislation it passes must be ratified by the House. That could mean recalling the House into session before the 112th congressional session officially expires at the end of December.
“I think they’re committed to doing as much of the agenda as possible,” Rowsome said. “But it’s hard to keep everybody in town.”