When the power of protest works

Organized dissent helped kill Rep. Chaffetz’s public-lands transfer bill.

 

Raúl M. Grijalva is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the Democratic representative for Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. Congress.


On Jan. 24, my colleague, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, introduced a bill mandating the sale of more than 3 million acres of federally protected land to private buyers. In a dramatic turnaround little more than a week later, he announced that the bill, which he had introduced during each successive Congress for a decade now, “dies tomorrow.” Why? Chaffetz explained: “Groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message.”

We have a lot to learn from this episode. Concerned citizens who can replicate the kind of effective action that influenced Rep. Chaffetz over the course of those eight days can change the course of the Trump administration. To understand how, they need to remember that sustained public pressure organized around a specific demand is the most powerful force in politics; in fact, public pressure is the best way to stop the Republican majority in Congress from taking wrongheaded actions.

The Watchman, part of Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah
James Marvin Phelps

Chairmen of powerful committees rarely disavow their own legislation, especially when they’ve been championing it for years. Rep. Chaffetz had introduced his bill five Congresses in a row, basing it on a 1997 congressionally mandated Bureau of Land Management survey of federal property. The bill’s merits were always questionable; the BLM survey estimated the number of acres of potentially saleable land in various states but never specified or assessed any of the parcels. Yet for five Congresses, Rep. Chaffetz persevered.

When he reintroduced his bill in January, he described it as mandating the “disposal” — his word — of 3.3 million acres of federally protected land. Leaving aside for a moment the merits of that description, this kind of massive sale or giveaway of public land finds few supporters outside the extreme political right wing in Congress. Unfortunately — at least for those of us who cherish our country’s conservation legacy — that’s the very group now in charge of our public-lands policies. Anti-public-lands Republicans have already gone so far this year as to amend House rules to count all federal lands as literally worthless in order to make it easier to advance legislation to sell or give them away.

This political ideology is based on a conviction, which polls do not bear out, that the American public wants to eliminate or drastically curtail federal protection for public lands. In fact, as Colorado College found in its 2016 Western States Survey, only 26 percent of those asked thought that it was a good idea to “sell significant holdings of public lands like national forests to reduce the budget deficit,” while 60 percent oppose the notion. The just-released 2017 survey is equally definitive, with 68 percent preferring “placing a greater emphasis on protection” for public lands and just 22 percent preferring more extractive use of our natural resources.

But poll numbers alone have never been enough to change congressional behavior. If they were, our violent misadventures in Iraq, the fate of the public option during the health care reform debate, and many other crucial turning points in our recent past would have gone very differently. What changed this time?

People rallied publicly in unexpectedly large numbers against Rep. Chaffetz’s bill in ways that Republicans failed to foresee. Massive protests at state capitols in New Mexico and Montana grabbed state and regional headlines. When people whose opinions a lawmaker has taken for granted show up in force and demand a course correction, that lawmaker is at once surprised and concerned.

While Rep. Chaffetz’s bill passed the Natural Resources Committee in 2014, it had never passed the House or reached the president’s desk. That likely would have changed during this Congress, where the House and Senate Republican majorities are ideologically opposed to the federal government. The only thing standing in the way of the sale of those 3.3 million acres of land that belong to you, me and every other American — and the only thing that stands in the way of the next similar bill becoming law — is the willingness of ordinary people to call their members of Congress and even leave their homes to attend a rally with one strong message: Kill this bill.

This is not to discount the power of less focused public dissent. The Women’s March against President Trump generated such overwhelming public support in Washington and around the world that the White House still busies itself telling everyone how unimportant it was. That kind of protest will continue to have force and meaning throughout the coming Trump years.

But protesting a specific bill in no uncertain terms can produce results. At a time of unified Republican government, that kind of protest — which has already succeeded in this new Congress — may be the most potent legislative tool the American people possess.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.