Similar to former President Bill Clinton before him, President Barack Obama now faces a Republican-controlled Congress, one that will almost certainly be implacably hostile toward progressive governance and determined to put a conservative stamp on the statute books.
If the past is any guide, a significant part of the agenda of the incoming Congress will be a broad-based attack on the conservation of public lands. The GOP leadership launched exactly that kind of assault after sweeping into power on Capitol Hill in 1995 following an election in which Republicans gained 54 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate. It was the first time since 1954 that Republicans controlled the House, and they had considerable pent-up demands about how the federal government should manage its vast network of national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, and rangelands.
However, President Clinton was able to blunt the GOP leadership’s anti-environment agenda through aggressive use of the presidential veto and the credible threat of a veto. President Obama should be prepared to do the same in defense of a system of public lands whose conservation and recreation benefits are unmatched in the world. Of course, that is not the view of many Republicans, who see the nation’s public lands as long overdue for plundering for economic gain by their corporate allies, particularly the oil and gas industry.
With the Republicans set to take control of Congress in January, it is instructive to go back in time and review how President Clinton dealt with a Congress eager to roll back the progressive clock two decades ago. At that time, the GOP rank and file in the House—under the new leadership of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and his so-called Contract with America—promised fundamental, even seismic, changes to the social compact.
As University of Florida political scientist Richard S. Conley wrote in a 2001 paper:
President William Jefferson Clinton did not set out to master Congress by the explicit or implicit use of the veto power. He cast not a single veto in the 103rd Congress (1993–94). However, the dramatic return of divided government following the elections of 1994, and Republicans’ continued control of both chambers of Congress through the end of his second term, forced the president to adapt his legislative presidency to a radically altered political context. Clinton vetoed thirty-five bills (excluding pocket vetoes and line-item vetoes) from 1995–2000. Republican leaders challenged eleven of the thirty-five vetoes in one or the other chamber but managed to override the president only once. Further, Clinton relied on the implied use of the veto—veto threats—on over 140 bills, and he was generally successful in halting the Republicans’ agenda or wresting policy concessions from the majority leadership.
While much of the epic 1995 budget battle between President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress revolved around major economic questions, including the Republicans leadership’s desire to make big cuts to Medicare and Medicaid spending, an important aspect of the fight involved environmental issues and attempts in Congress to roll back protections for public lands.
In vetoing that year’s budget reconciliation bill—H.R. 2491—on December 6, 1995, President Clinton overruled congressional efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development; eliminate environmental reviews of livestock grazing on public lands; and end a moratorium on the “patenting”of public lands for mining—a process that allowed private corporations and others to take possession of forest and range land for as little as $2.50 per acre without paying royalties on the mining proceeds.
“Today I am vetoing the biggest Medicare and Medicaid cuts in history, deep cuts in education, a rollback in environmental protection, and a tax increase on working families,” PresidentClinton said in his veto message. “I am using this pen to preserve our commitment to our parents, to protect opportunity for our children, to defend the public health and our natural resources and natural beauty, and to stop a tax increase that actually undercuts the value of work.”
Less than two weeks later, President Clinton pulled out his veto pen again, this time on the fiscal year 1996 appropriation bill—H.R. 4328—for the U.S. Department of the Interior and the other major federal land-management agency, the U.S. Forest Service. Without the veto, Republican leaders would have been able to greatly increase timber cutting in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest public forest and the centerpiece of the world’s largest remaining temperate rain forest. The bill would have also blocked new rules about livestock grazing on public lands, authorized corporate sponsorships of national parks, opened up the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota to motorboats and Jet Skis, and blocked an expansion of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
While the particular agenda items on the Republican leadership’s wish list differ from 20 years ago, the Congress that will assume office in January also has a long list of items to thwart sensible, science-based management of the nation’s public lands.
Among the controversial policies likely to come up in the next Congress, many of which have already been introduced in the current and previous Congresses, are bills that would:
- Restrict or eliminate the president’s authority to protect endangered lands administratively by creating national monuments under the authority of the Antiquities Act. President Obama has created 13 new national monuments, protecting more than 1 million acres.
- Block rules now under development to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production and to regulate hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—on public lands
- Limit environmental reviews of oil and gas drilling projects on public lands
- Direct the Forest Service to boost timber cutting in national forests, restrict environmental reviews of those logging projects, and permit building roads and logging in roadless areas that are currently protected from development
- Curtail the Interior Department from protecting wilderness-quality lands that are not yet legislatively protected
- Delay a decision on whether to give the greater sage grouse—whose habitat includes millions of acres of public land—protections under the Endangered Species Act
- Prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from protecting the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska—the most important sockeye salmon habitat in the world, which is threatened by a proposed mine operation
Measures such as these pose a grave threat to the nation’s parks, forests, and other public lands. Moreover, they fly in the face of a broad national consensus that public lands should be managed for conservation and the enjoyment of the American people, not for short-term economic gain.
To protect those values, President Obama needs to ready his veto pen and prepare to show the new Congress that he is willing and able to stand and fight for the nation’s public lands.
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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