Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Public Lands in the 116th (2019–20) Congress

Elections matter, and the 2018 midterm election mattered a lot.

 The current 115th Congress (2017–18) has been disastrous for the nation’s public lands—not so much for what it has done (or might still do) but for what it has not done. This Congress has miserably failed to check the unprecedented presidential assault on the public lands, the oceans, wildlife, nature, and the climate. What can we expect from the next Congress?

The View from 30,000 Feet

Yes, the 2018 midterm elections were a referendum on President Donald Trump. Today, he’s about equally loved and loathed. There was a blue wavelet of enough for the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives, but the red wall continues with Republicans still in control of the Senate.

We live in a polarized nation divided between rural and urban with the suburbs and exurbs swinging toward the Democrats, allowing that party to retake the House.

Though losing the House, the Republicans strengthened their hold on the Senate. Fortunately, due to the filibuster rule (still in effect, at least for now), a three-fifths majority (sixty out of one hundred votes) is generally required to do bad in the Senate. Unfortunately, it also takes sixty votes to do any good. Even if the Senate were to pass a good bill that came over from the House, Trump would veto it. To override a presidential veto takes two-thirds of each house voting to do so. That isn’t going to happen.

The environment, including public lands and wildlife, has broad and deep bipartisan support and is also a deeply partisan issue. While conservation is conservative by nature, a minority band of anti-environment senators and members of Congress drag the Republican Party to be generally horrible on public lands. As for the Democrats, public lands, wildlife, and nature are good and easy issues, unless the green issue is opposed by organized labor (who might want to build pipelines, powerlines, and such).

The United States Constitution vests all power over the nation’s public lands to the Congress . Source:  Wikipedia

The United States Constitution vests all power over the nation’s public lands to the Congress. Source: Wikipedia

Oversight, Anyone?

Besides enacting legislation, the legislative branch has the power and duty of oversight of the other two branches of government: the administrative and the judiciary. In this current Congress, the Republicans haven’t been interested in overseeing an administration of the same party. In the next Congress, it will be all about oversight by the House of Representatives. With the Democrats in the majority, the House committees will be issuing subpoenas to daylight information and behavior and calling administration officials to testify.

The Senate, still held by Republicans, won’t be doing any oversight of the Trump Administration. We may see increased oversight by the Senate of progressive nongovernmental organizations, which will have the double benefit of putting such organizations on the defensive and competing for media attention with House oversight.

While investigating the ethical lapses of Trump and his administration officials is a good thing, it would be even better if the House were to investigate the multiple and blatant lapses pertaining to the care and protection of the nation’s public lands.

Courts More Hostile Toward the Environment

Most of the Senate’s action will be confirming generally white, conservative, and young males to lifetime judgeships. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently fell and broke some ribs, having done so before in 2012 and 2013. One tough justice, also beat back colon cancer (1999) and pancreatic cancer (2009). But she is 85. If Ginsburg can no longer serve past the January 20, 2021, Trump and the Senate Republicans will strengthen the conservative control of the Supreme Court.

Stinky Zinke

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the subject of at least six ongoing ethics inquiries, including his involvement in shrinking the national monuments in Utah. Nine other inquiries have been closed, either because he has been cleared or because of a lack of cooperation. One has been referred to the Justice Department as a potential criminal matter. That one has to do with a development deal in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana. The former University of Oregon football player has long dreamed of opening a brew pub. Haliburton, the oil services giant, seems to have developed an interest in diversifying into brew pub services. Well, both have to do with tanks and pipes.

The Senate

The good news pertaining to public lands which are mostly in the 11 western states (and Alaska):

• Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) lost to Democrat Jacky Rosen, meaning there won’t be a rider introduced to prevent Endangered Species Act protection for a distinct segment of the sage grouse population that straddles California and Nevada.

• Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) easily won re-election. Heinrich is generally good on public lands issues.

• Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) was narrowly re-elected, a marginally good thing.

• In Arizona, to replace Sen. Jeff Flake (R), Democrat Kirsten Sinema has taken very narrow lead over Republican Martha McSally, as the absentee ballots are counted. It wouldn’t have been close had the Green Party candidate—who dropped out of the race but not in time for her name to be removed from the ballot—not received more than enough votes to give the election to Sinema.

The bad news:

• Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) easily won re-election. Barrasso is always awful on public lands issues and will chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over endangered species.

• Republican Governor Rick Scott narrowly won over incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson (D), though it’s close enough for a mandatory recount.

Continued Republican control of the Senate bodes ill for public lands.

The House

The good news:

• Rep. Rául Grijalva (D-3rd-AZ), a genuinely good person, ascends to the chair of the Committee on Natural Resources, replacing the genuinely awful Rep. Rod Bishop (R-1st-UT).

• The State of Washington will have one more Democrat in its congressional delegation.

The bad news:

• Rep. Rod Bishop is still in Congress, though he has announced the 116th Congress will be his last.

• The Republican caucus will be thinned of its relatively least-crazy members by Democrats replacing them, leaving a caucus comprised of a greater percentage who are bat-shit crazy.

• The Democratic caucus, while a majority, will have a greater number of conservative or moderate Democrats who may or may not be okay on certain environmental issues.

Democratic control of the House of Representatives bodes well for many bad things not happening to public lands, but not enough for many good things to happen.


Democratic Oregon Governor Kate Brown was re-elected, which is good news for both the Elliott State Forest and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Source: Wikipedia

The Governors

Though state officials, governors exert influence on federal public land policy.

The good news:

• Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D) was re-elected, though by just 50%. The Republican candidate getting 43.9%. Independent Party candidate Patrick Starnes received 2.9 percent of the vote. After the ballots were mailed out (all Oregonians vote by mail), Starnes dropped out of the race after receiving a promise from Brown to support significant campaign finance reform. That this agreement was not reached before the mailing of the ballots reflects poorly on both candidates. Brown has been very supportive of the expanded and threatened Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, as well as keeping the Elliott State Forest in public ownership.

• The infamous Ryan Bundy, son of the infamous Cliven Bundy, who doesn’t believe in the federal government or federal public lands, who trespasses his cattle on a national monument and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to make the point, finished fourth in his bid to become governor of Nevada. The Democrat won, the Republican lost, and “None of These Candidates” received more votes than Bundy.

• Maine will have a new governor (Democrat) who opposes oil and gas exploitation of the Atlantic Ocean offshore Maine. The outgoing Republican was the only Atlantic state governor to support despoiling the state’s offshore property, if not the shoreline itself.

The bad news:

• Republicans continue to hold office in several western states. The George W. Bush administration modified President Bill Clinton’s national forest roadless conservation rule to allow a state’s governor to petition the administration to gut protection for roadless areas in that state. Most national forest roadless areas are in the eleven western states and Alaska. When a Republican governor asks a Republican president to gut protection, there go roadless areas. This has been the case previously in Idaho and Colorado and is being proposed in Alaska and Utah. Watch out for Arizona and Wyoming.

The Oregon Delegation

The Oregon congressional delegation will not change in the next Congress.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-2nd-OR) will no longer chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the committee of jurisdiction over health care.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-4th-OR) will chair the House Transportation Committee and could positively influence an infrastructure bill.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-5th-OR) will continue to be active with the Blue Dog Coalition, a House caucus of conservative/moderate/ Democrats. The blue dogs may be a more powerful force in House Democratic politics in the 116thCongress.

Rep. Susanne Bonamici (D-1st-OR) will likely get to chair a subcommittee of either the Education and Workforce Committee or the Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-3rd-OR) wants the probable speaker, Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-12th-CA), to create and appoint him chair of a special subcommittee on infrastructure in the Ways and Means Committee. Blumenauer is very interested in infrastructure and that infrastructure being green and good.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the junior senator from Oregon, may spend a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire between now and the March 2020 filing deadline to seek re-election as a senator from Oregon. Merkley will still hold a seat on the very powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the senior senator from Oregon, will continue to be ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Wyden’s term ends in 2022.

The 115th Congress Lame Duck Session

There is some chance that a bill may be cobbled together that consists of priorities of members that aren’t seriously opposed by other members. One bill might include the Oregon Wildlands Act, which has been reported out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. It’s relatively easier for senators to come up with a package, but getting the House of Representatives to go along is more difficult in that the Republican leadership wants a whole string of awful anti-environment bills that don’t have the votes in the Senate.

There is also some chance that the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be reauthorized. The bill has strong bipartisan support, but the generally dysfunctional Congress has prevented its enactment into law.

Also hanging out there is the 2018 farm bill, which includes some horrible anti-environment provisions in the House version. The Republicans, still in control of the House during the lame duck session, really want to gut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”), something again for which there are not sixty votes in the Senate. (If the farm bill does pass during lame duck, it will very likely include a provision redefining “marijuana” to no longer include industrial hemp, something I have been advocating for more than two decades.)

Finally, The Trump Administration and the lame duck House Republicans may push for funding for the southern border wall. Such would need 60 votes in the Senate, which is unlikely. No matter how you feel about the wall affecting the migration of non-native people, it is a dead-certain wall against the migration of native wildlife.

Onward to 2020: The White House and the 117th Congress

Trump is running for re-election in 2020, and it appears that half of the Democrats in the Senate are seeking to replace him. The map of the Senate for 2020 tends to favor the Democrats (more seats open where Hillary Clinton won), but not as much as the 2018 map favored the Republicans (several Democrats running and losing in states where Trump won).

Special Counsel Robert Mueller may issue his report on Trump, the Trump campaign, the Trump administration, and potential Russian involvement in all of it, and other matters, before the end of the year—or he may not. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Mueller investigation, was fired and the acting AG hostile to the investigation. A constitutional crisis may loom.

Congress has the power of impeachment. It is important to remember that impeachment is a political, not a judicial, process. A high crime or misdemeanor is what a majority of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate says it is. Those rushing to impeach would do well to count their votes, especially in the Senate, before proceeding.

Voter turnout in the 2018 midterm election was the largest since 1966 (think Vietnam War as the divisive issue of the time). The 2020 presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial elections will be even more consequential than 2016’s.

Elections matter.