The Climate for Reform in Congress

by Randal O'Toole

Washington, DC, remains polarized as always. Republicans charge that Democrats spend too much money. Democrats charge that Republicans waste just as much on pork, only spending it on the rich instead of the poor. Political rhetoric has aimed at the 1996 presidential election ever since last November 8, when Republicans captured both houses of Congress.

The reality is far more complicated than the rhetoric. Federal deficit spending has been out of control for well over a decade. Demographic projections indicate that by the year 2030 so many people will be on social security and so few will be working and paying taxes that the federal government will be bankrupt even if it taxes half of what all income earners make.

Beginning in the mid 1980s, a small faction in Congress began to worry about how to prevent this. They realized that individual members of Congress have incentives to spend more money even if such spending threatened the nation as a whole. So they sought ways to keep Congress from spending in spite of itself.

No one was innocent when it came to pork. Phil Gramm, one of the leaders of this movement, made sure plenty of pork went to his home state of Texas. Gramm and others knew that the only way to reduce spending was to do so in a way that individual members of Congress wouldn't have to take the blame for it.

In essence, they were saying, "Stop me before I spend again!"

Their first idea was to pass a law requiring that the federal deficit be phased out over five years. Known as the Gramm-Rudman Act, after Phil Gramm and New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman, the law had one flaw: What Congress can do, it can undo. So each year Congress postponed the deficit reductions, until by 1990--the year the deficit was supposed to be zero--it was actually larger than when the law had been passed.

The next idea was to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget. But the supporters of pork were able to muster up too many convincing arguments for this to pass both houses.

In the meantime, Texas Representative Richard Armey, who many regarded as something of a kook, came up with an interesting idea for military bases. The Pentagon wanted to close hundreds of obsolete bases, some of which had originally been constructed to fight the War of 1812. But pork kept the bases open.

Armey's innovation was the Base Closures Commission, an independent body that would review military bases and decide which ones should be shut down. The bases selected by the commission would close unless both houses of Congress overruled the commission. The brilliant thing about this idea was that members who represented districts whose bases were closed could all say they fought the closures, but that they lost the fight.

In the first go-around, the commission closed about 100 bases, saving the Pentagon hundreds of millions of dollars that it could use doing more valuable defense activities. The success of the idea helped catapult Armey into his current position as House Majority Leader.

When the Republicans won Congress last November for the first time in 40 years, they were as surprised as anyone. Except for the Contract with America--which was mainly procedural--they weren't prepared with a detailed platform for reforming welfare or social security, much less relatively small agencies like the Forest Service. So much of 1995 was spent tossing ideas around to see if anyone would support them.

Meanwhile, environmentalists found themselves on the wrong side of the swing of the political pendulum. During the 1970s, environmentalists had been fairly nonpartisan, often endorsing Republicans for office--including Newt Gingrich.

By the 1980s, however, environmentalists were siding more and more with Democrats. This is partly because they were so powerfully rewarded for attacking the Republican administration, especially James Watt. Since the Republicans were talking about downsizing government, environmentalists felt they had to be for big government. So they endorsed Democrats even against Republicans who had fairly good environmental records. Republicans, seeing that they could gain nothing from working with environmentalists, began working with their opponents.

Oregon's ex-Senator Bob Packwood is a good example. One of his proudest accomplishments in Congress was saving Hells Canyon, and he often said that all remaining roadless areas should be saved as wilderness. But at re-election time, environmentalists refused to endorse him over a Democrat. Packwood lost a little interest in environmental causes after each election, and by the late 1980s, he was a proponent of the Wise-Use Movement.

So by 1994, the environment had become a heavily partisan issue. Of course, that didn't mean that Democrats were all environmental extremists. In 1993 and 1994, when Democrats occupied both Congress and the White House, environmentalists were unable to renew the Endangered Species Act or get any other significant pieces of environmental legislation passed.

The Republican takeover of Congress left the environmental movement in disarray. A few major environmental groups decided to focus on helping Democrats win back Congress. But many other groups fear that is impossible anytime soon, and they are trying different tactics. So far, none seem very successful.

Ideally, at least some environmentalists should sit down with Republicans and say, "Ok, you're in charge now. How can we work together so that we can all accomplish our goals?" But few environmentalists have tried that.

Take, for example, the "National Park System Reform Act of 1995." Following the model of the base closures commission, this bill would create a "parks review commission" that would determine if there are any units of the park system that don't deserve national park status or would be better managed by someone else. This bill had actually been introduced in the last Congress by Democrats Bruce Vento and George Miller--both of whom are regarded as strong environmentalists.

Vento and Miller, along with many Park Service officials, felt that many recent additions to the park system were diverting scarce dollars and resources away from the "crown jewels"--the truly valuable, large national parks. The standard examples include Steamtown, America's Industrial Heritage Project, and Keeweenaw Historic Park--areas that cost tens of millions of dollars at a time when parks like Glacier and Yellowstone were being cut back.

Vento particularly resented the fact that parks such as Steamtown had been "added" by the appropriations committees, which often simply started spending money on new sites without authorization. Technically, parks could only be created by the authorizing committees, of which Vento and Miller were chairs. But by the time they were asked to approve of parks like Steamtown, the appropriators had already spent millions and argued that the spending would go to waste if the parks weren't authorized.

So Vento introduced the parks review commission bill in 1994, and it passed both houses of Congress with almost no opposition. The Senate and House versions were slightly different, however, and Congress adjourned before the differences were dealt with by a conference committee.

When the Republicans took over, the bill was reintroduced, but this time it was cosponsored by Utah Representative James Hansen, who had taken over the chair of Vento's National Parks Subcommittee. Even though Vento's name was still on the bill, environmentalists decided that the bill was a part of a Republican plot to give away all of the national parks, not just Steamtown and a few others. So they opposed the bill and it failed in a vote on the House floor.

This showed that environmentalists still have a little political muscle. Ironically, they wasted it supporting pork and opposing a bill that could actually do some good for the environment.

In looking for a Republican plot, environmentalists didn't have to search far. Republican senators from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, among other states, introduced a bill offering to turn all BLM lands over to the states, while Alaska Representative Don Young introduced a bill to turn the Tongass National Forest over to the state of Alaska.

As threatening as these bills sounded, neither got anywhere in 1995. What did get somewhere was the salvage sale rider that directed the Forest Service and BLM to sell more salvage sales and exempted such sales from appeals or judicial review. This was the result of a successful industry campaign about forest health.

The forests of the West, said the industry, are threatened by insects and disease. The solution is good forest management--meaning timber sales.

In fact, much of what the industry said is true, or at least half true. Insect and disease epidemics are on the rise. But this is not because, as some members of Congress think, of too much wilderness. Instead, it is more likely due to decades of fire suppression. Moreover, while timber sales are one tool to deal with the problem, they are not the only tool--yet the new law and incentives built into the Forest Service's budget will insure that timber cutting is the main tool that will be used, while little will be done to fix the fire suppression problem.

The industry campaign succeeded both because the industry had worked on it for years and because it finally had a receptive audience. Bills to give federal lands to the states failed because no one had seriously thought about it, and even those who talked about the idea--such as some ranchers--weren't really sure they wanted the states to manage the land.

Much more thoughtful was Idaho Senator Larry Craig's effort to study the national forests. Craig hired Mark Rey, a lobbyist with the American Forests and Paper Association, to work on the staff of his Forests and Public Land Subcommittee, and the subcommittee held a full dozen oversight hearings on the national forests.

Many environmentalists felt threatened by these hearings. But they covered some important questions. Is ecosystem management science or rhetoric? Does the Forest Service's expensive planning process do anything other than employ planners? Do the states do any better or worse than the Forest Service, and if so, why?

The hearing hardly demonstrated widespread support for giving the national forests to the states. Berkeley forestry professor Sally Fairfax, who has been studying state land trusts for years, testified that states are often good land managers--but hastened to add that this did not mean she supported giving the national forests away.

State and county officials also testified to the quality of state land management. But they emphasized that states agencies could be better managers because they weren't plagued with conflicting laws and endless red tape--not because the lands were state owned.

Kevin Carter, who helps run Utah's state trust lands, emphasized that it was the "trust management mandate" that allows the state to "protect sensitive resources while at the same time providing substantial revenues" to schools. "Federal lands could be managed using this model," added Carter, without giving those lands to the states.

Oregon State Forester James Brown, testifying on behalf of the National Association of State Foresters, said that the association "hopes that the [Forest Service] can continue" in its role as a national conservation leader.

County commissioners from Arizona and Idaho echoed this view. "Wholesale transfer (either ownership or management) of national forest lands to non-federal entities is no panacea," said Navajo County Supervisor Larry Layton and Boundary County Commissioner Merle Dinning. "Professional federal managers, freed from the ridiculous web of federal laws and regulations and given the flexibility and freedom to make wise choices, can manage our federal forests and grasslands effectively."

Oregon's Union County Commission John Howard even warned that, if the goal is to increase timber and other resource outputs, giving the forests to the states could be counterproductive. "Oregon has an initiative petition process which could result in ballot measures which could adversely affect land management," said Howard, who meant that Oregon's urban voters are most likely to support reductions in timber production.

Most witnesses supported the trust model described by Sally Fairfax. But Worldwatch's Janet Abromowitz, who was the only environmentalist invited to testify, pointed out that, under the "public trust doctrine," national forests are already "held and managed in trust for the benefit of all citizens of the United States." But as Fairfax and others testified, the mandate behind this "doctrine" is unclear, whereas the mandate behind state trusts is crystal clear: Make money. Senator Craig responded to Abromowitz by pointing out the difficulty of writing a clear mandate for national forest managers that would be accepted by all interests.

The one witness who did support the transfer of some forest lands to the states was former USDI policy analyst and current University of Maryland professor Robert Nelson. Nelson showed that federal land management is based on the false premises of Progressive-era "scientific management." Without those premises, Nelson sees no way to justify federal holdings of lands other than a few areas of truly national significance.

Nelson proved his case against scientific management, but that doesn't automatically mean that federal ownership can't work. The challenge for those who support federal lands is to find a way it can. I tried to meet that challenge in my own testimony; what follows is a brief summary.

Assume for a minute that the goal is better forest management, not just more (or less) timber and grazing at any cost. Just knowing that federal agencies could manage the forests better, as so many witnesses emphasized, won't satisfy those who want to know how to take away the incentives for Congress to micromanage the land and use it for pork barrel. Since Congress has proven itself susceptible to all forms of pork, giving the lands to the states may seem the best way of putting them out of harms' reach.

Yet it is likely that no interest group--not the timber industry, not ranchers, not counties, especially not environmentalists--really supports transfer of the national forests to the states, because no one can predict how any interest will fare after such a transfer. The devil they know is preferable to the one they don't.

At the same time, no one--not the timber industry, not ranchers, not counties, especially not environmentalists--is happy with the idea of letting Congress continue to micromanage the forests. Development interests fear environmental laws and restrictions, environmentalists fear mandated timber harvest levels and grazing giveaways.

The Thoreau Institute's proposal for turning national forests into individual forest trusts attempts to satisfy all interests by getting Congress out of the picture while maintaining checks and balances on behalf of all resources. The three fundamental principles behind this proposal are:

  1. Congress must allow federal forest managers to charge a broad range of user fees, including fees for recreation, at fair market value.

  2. Congress must fund forests out of the net income that they earn, not out of tax dollars or gross receipts. Such funding should be "off budget," that is, outside of the appropriations process.

  3. Congress must set up a biodiversity trust fund and seed that fund with a fixed percentage of gross receipts from national forests and other public lands.
For discussion purposes, the Institute has drafted a "National Forest Reform Act of 1996" that provides a framework for these principles, including boards of trustees elected by members of the forest trusts. But other such frameworks are possible.

The articles in the fall, 1995 issue of Different Drummer all deal with federal land reform, in most cases focusing on the national forests. Some are based on testimony given at the hearings, others on papers given at recent conferences on the subject, and others on papers collected from various sources.

Our goal is to encourage people to forget the rhetoric and instead to think about the real problems with federal land management. All interest groups should work with Congress as it contemplates the major changes in public land management that nearly everyone concedes are necessary.

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