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for people who care about the West

Fixing what ain't broken in Foggy Bottom


There may be many distinguishing features of the current U.S. House of Representatives, but one that sticks out recently is the tendency to do things that don't need to be done.

First, keep in mind that Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has made it clear on several occasions that the EPA has no plans to regulate farm dust.

Even so, in early December the House passed the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act. You might have guessed what it does: It prevents the EPA from regulating farm dust, something it was never going to do in the first place.

In other words, the bill is symbolic. Even though it has 121 co-sponsors -- most of the Western Republicans are on that list -- the bill has no chance in the Senate. Even if it did somehow pass there, President Obama has promised to veto it.

I understand why an agency charged with protecting our environment might take an interest in farm dust. I grew up in farm country, in a county where the stifling aroma of vast cattle feedlots was "the smell of money."

But even though we were thus acclimated to foul air, never did I hear anyone say that farm dust was in any way good for you. Nobody ever encouraged us to take deep breaths whenever we encountered an agricultural cloud, especially if the particles came from a crop duster and contained herbicides or fungicides.

Even dust from plain old dirt had a bad reputation, for whenever the wind stayed up for more than an hour or two, our grandparents would talk about the frightening and sometimes lethal black rollers that struck the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.

That said, the EPA has made it clear it has no plans to regulate agricultural dust. But Bill Donald, a Montana rancher and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, doesn't trust the agency: "Unfortunately, taking EPA's word that farm dust will not be further regulated provides absolutely no relief to those cattle producers already faced with dust regulations. We saw legislation as the only option to give all ranchers across the country any sort of peace of mind" as they had been "worried about being fined for moving cattle, tilling a field or even driving down a dirt road."

Well, of course. The idea is to scare you into paying your dues to your lobbying group, the one that will protect you by getting Congress to pass a bill that prevents the EPA from doing something it wasn't going to do anyway.

The United States has also had a perfectly usable national motto since about 1782: "E pluribus unum," Latin for "Out of many, one." In 1956, at the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, Congress added another national motto: "In God we trust." The idea was to proclaim that we were God-fearing folks, rather than godless Communists.

Not long ago, who knows why, the House voted 396 to 9 to re-affirm "In God we trust" as a national motto. The vote changes nothing and was a bigger waste of time than naming an office building or designating National Pickle Week.

That might not be the only piece of unnecessary legislation this session. For instance, by federal law, aircraft must generally fly more than 500 feet above the ground. So we really don't need another law, but some of my imaginative neighbors might sleep better if there were a "Black Helicopter Minimum Altitude Maintenance Act."

Since there's no economical way to use oil shale, there's no much point in passing laws to discourage its development. But many Westerners would rest easier if the "Marlite Mining Prohibition Act of 2011" were in effect.

New light bulb efficiency standards are supposed to take effect soon, and this has some people worried about retaining their precious yet inefficient, old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. There's nothing in the law that empowers federal agents to go from house to house, confiscating your old bulbs. So there's no need for an Individual Light Bulb Choice Protection Act, but one would be popular in some circles anyway.

Doubtless there are many more perfectly unnecessary laws that the House will take up. But we should not criticize our representatives for this. If they weren't busy with redundant laws, they'd have more time to gut environmental protections, shred the Bill of Rights and privatize public land. As it is, their actions may look stupid, but at least they're also relatively harmless.

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Salida, Colorado.

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 [email protected].