Fracking, public lands, ag bills to watch at the close of legislative year

 

There are just four days left before the legislative year ends and Congress calls it good – or mediocre, as it may be – for 2013. This Congress passed the fewest number of laws since 1947, earning the unfortunate title of “least productive in history.” So it should come as no surprise that several major pieces of legislation are still hanging in the balance, in need of a miracle to make it to President Obama’s desk before we ring in the New Year.

Here are a few bills recently introduced, and some that have been kicking around for ages, that we’re paying particular attention to at High Country News.

AGRICULTURE

For starters, the much-anticipated farm bill, originally created to help an agricultural industry reeling from the Great Depression, is nine weeks past deadline. The bill allocates some $97 billion in federal money each year, and as HCN has reported, has big implications for crop insurance, conservation programs and food security, among other things. There’s been renewed effort this week to defy partisan antics and get it passed. "Sometimes things take forever, but when all the gears notch up correctly, it can move at lightning speed," Congressman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the farm bill conference committee, told reporters. If it’s still untouched in January 2014, food prices will likely rise as ag programs go unfunded.

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The Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 is unlikely to pass before the end of the year.

The Grazing Improvement Act, introduced two years ago by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in November. The law would extend grazing permits from the current 10 years to up to 20, and generally expedite the process for gaining permits to Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands. Proponents of the bill say that those two agencies “have consistently — for more than a decade — carried a backlog of grazing permit renewals due to overwhelming and unnecessary National Environmental Protection Agency assessments.” The Sierra Club and other environmental groups say the bill would exempt grazing allotments from environmental review. A similar bill, sponsored by Congressman Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, awaits action in the House.

ENERGY

To environmentalists’ dismay, a bill that would block the Department of Interior from enforcing federal fracking regulations in states that already have their own rules passed the House this week. It would mean even if the states’ laws are weaker than their federal equivalents, the states’ rules would carry more authority over contentious issues, such as whether companies reveal which chemicals they use. “This bill simply prevents the federal government from wasting time, money and resources by imposing duplicative red-tape on a process that is widely regarded as being properly regulated by states,” Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said after the vote. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has introduced a companion Senate bill for the same purpose.

The White House vowed to veto the bills if they make it through both chambers.

PUBLIC LANDS

There are currently a couple dozen wilderness bills languishing in Congress, many of which were introduced more than a year ago. As for national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced a bill Nov. 20 that would keep federal public land open if the government shuts down again, as it did for 16 days this fall. The hotel industry has come out in full force in favor of this bill, since it lost an estimated $115.2 million during the recent shutdown.

Grand Canyon National Park, pictured here, would remain open during a future shutdown of the federal government, if a new bill by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz, is signed into law. Photo graph courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., recently introduced a bill to lift federal boating bans in Yellowstone National Park and on some waters in Grand Teton National Park. For more on controversies surrounding boating in national parks, and a group of kayakers hoping to make their sport legal in Yellowstone, see William Freihofer’s story from a recent issue of HCN.

IMMIGRATION

Hope for immigration reform has risen from the dead many times this year, and more than once this fall, but reform will probably remain in limbo until 2014. The Republican-controlled House has not agreed to even vote on a bill passed by the Senate in June that would provide a 13-year path to citizenship. For the past three weeks, a coalition led by the AFL-CIO, has been pressuring nine GOP legislators, some of whom represent heavily Latino districts, to bring a reform bill to a vote. Representatives Scott Tipton, R-Colo., Mike Coffman, R-Colo., Steve Pearce, R-N.M., Joe Heck, R-Nev., Jeff Denham, R-Calif., David Valadao, R-Calif., and Buck McKeon, R-Calif., are among the targeted lawmakers.

Tom Snyder, the immigration program director of the AFL-CIO, says that pro-reform Republicans could borrow a few moves from Tea Partiers, who used bullish tactics to bring on the shutdown in October due to their discontent with the federal budget and Obamacare. “The Tea Party, they seem able through their urgent activity to get a lot done,” Snyder says. “We need a strong and passionate caucus of House Republicans who say they’re for immigration reform to force the issue on House Republican leaders in the same way that a small but vocal and passionate minority of Tea Party Republicans is able to get things done.” The House Democrats’ HR 15 has only three GOP cosponsors out of 192, despite the fact that almost 30 House Republicans have gone on record supporting reform, Snyder says. The campaign, which uses Spanish-language television advertisements and phone calls, is meant to spur those representatives to galvanize fellow party members to bring the bill to the House floor.

For more rules and regulations fun, check out the Unified Agenda – with over 3,000 rules and regulation proposals – that Congress released last week, outlining goals for upcoming regulatory action. With 2014 just around the corner, maybe this year’s unproductive and stalemate-ridden Congress has some New Year’s resolutions to make.

Tay Wiles is the online editor at High Country News. She tweets @taywiles.