Committee leaders get along but don’t go along

By Emily Yehle | 02/24/2016 06:56 AM EST

Old national parks posters dot the walls, tribal artifacts spread across shelves and desks burst at the seams with papers and tchotchkes in Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s office.

One year into his post as ranking member, the Arizona Democrat’s suite reflects the sprawling mission of the House Natural Resources Committee, helmed by Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah).

Polar opposites, the two so far have dug into their respective corners, continuing the legacy of a panel that has much to say — on everything from public lands to tribal rights — but few bipartisan victories.


In recent interviews, both lawmakers sounded an optimistic note about this year, pointing to wildfire spending reform and a National Park Service centennial bill as "doable" goals. But Bishop is setting a high bar for any legislation: It must be a new approach that moves toward his idea of reform.

"The idea of passing a bill so everyone will vote for a bill so I can pat myself on the back and say I passed a bill — that is meaningless," Bishop said on a recent weekday, adding that he is still willing to "play along" if legislation doesn’t do damage. "But there comes a point where it’s got to be making sure that we are still moving forward to something that is better."

Grijalva, meanwhile, described his position as a defensive crouch.

"Our job given our status of minority party and given their agenda, we have to effectively and aggressively keep the worst from happening," he said, defining "the worst" as "that the [Endangered Species Act] gets gutted, that the Clear Air Act, the Clear Water Act becomes toothless, that the extraction industry wins on our public lands and it becomes open season."

The result is a congressional odd couple: Bishop, a witty and sometimes vicious skeptic of government, wants to reform the federal role in public lands and natural resources. Grijalva, an affable environmentalist, sees government as a partner in protecting America’s wildlife and landscapes.

Is there a middle ground?

An open door that disappoints

Stephen Brown, vice president for federal government affairs at oil refiner Tesoro Corp., called the panel "one of the most partisan" in Congress.

It’s a commonly held belief, though the fault depends on who is talking: Brown blames Democrats for stacking the committee with Western lawmakers, while Grijalva has accused Republicans of making it a "cushy assignment for collecting industry contributions."

Both sides of the political spectrum agree that it’s more open under Bishop than it was under his predecessor, former Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). Bishop is willing to hear his adversaries out — though he makes no promise of compromising.

"I think the bone he throws is, ‘I’m never gonna kick you out of my office, and I’m never going to not listen to you,’" Brown said. "As much as it is going to be thoughtful legislating, you can be a thoughtful legislator and not be necessarily bipartisan. I think he’s committed to an open process. I think he’s committed to open discussions and smart ideas."

Environmentalists agree that Bishop has held to his promise of an open door, keeping them in the loop far more than Hastings. But they say they are still waiting for it to bear fruit.

Athan Manuel, director of public lands protection for the Sierra Club, once applauded Bishop for being "open to all sides" and taking the process seriously (E&E Daily, Nov. 7, 2014). Today, he says he’s underwhelmed.

"We went into it optimistic and hoping he would move more bills," Manuel said, later adding: "We really thought he would be more of a deal-maker and little less of an ideologue."

Alan Rowsome, the senior director of government relations for lands at the Wilderness Society, said the panel has "all too often used the gavel to malign our land management agencies rather than work collaboratively to protect and enhance our nation’s public lands."

Among the disappointments for conservationists was Bishop’s long-awaited bill for 18 million acres of public lands in eastern Utah. The draft legislation — released last month — is among the largest public lands measures proposed for the state, and it would designate roughly 2.2 million acres of wilderness.

Bishop worked with more than 100 stakeholders, including conservationists, energy companies and Utah county officials. The proposal was held up as an opportunity for bipartisanship, with Bishop lauded as one of the few lawmakers who could pull it off (Greenwire, Oct. 22, 2013).

But the draft bill has been strongly denounced by conservationists, who pointed out that the wilderness it would designate would also be subject to exemptions from Wilderness Act protections (Greenwire, Jan. 20). For example, the bill would allow grazing to continue, as well as "any measures" to manage wildland fire.

To conservationists, those are poison pills that turn the bill into a missed opportunity. But to Bishop, that is the result of "disingenuous" groups that never meant to compromise in the first place.

"There are some groups that were at the table but left earlier, and to be honest, I was warned they would leave, and I said, ‘Nah, nah, let’s trust them.’ I was wrong, they were right. They left," Bishop said. "That bothers me especially because they made some insistence on us going into some areas I didn’t want to, but when we went into those areas, we tried to solve the problem, and then they still backed off."

Not quite friends

Bishop and Grijalva are not above throwing insults at each other, but they also are quick to say it’s not personal.

"I think what helps is we both have a good sense of humor, and even in the midst of a drama, we use it on each other," Grijalva said.

Bishop called Grijalva "great" — as a person.

"I think I’ve said in the past, if I wanted to pick a next-door neighbor, I’d pick Grijalva," he said. "I would never want him on the town council — politically, he’s crazy — but as a person, he is great, and he’s nice and actually every once in a while he says something in which I agree, and I have to grudgingly lean over and say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ Doesn’t happen very often."

Both are looking to the NPS centennial bill as the best chance for bipartisanship. The Obama administration has proposed pumping more than $1 billion over three years into NPS, mostly through mandatory funding that would go toward paying down the agency’s $11.5 billion maintenance backlog (Greenwire, Sept. 2, 2015).

The funding boost is unlikely — or, as Bishop called it, "dead on arrival." But Republicans and Democrats on the committee are already negotiating over other aspects of the bill that would increase user fees, establish an endowment and enhance private donations.

The prospect for reforming wildfire funding, another priority, is more hazy.

Congress came close to inserting reforms in the fiscal 2016 omnibus bill that sought to prevent the "fire borrowing" that happens when the Forest Service runs out of appropriated wildfire suppression money and takes money from its other accounts. The deal also would have allowed some streamlining of logging projects.

Support for the proposal was strong among lawmakers, and a top official at the Agriculture Department called it an opportunity for a funding fix and forest reform (E&E Daily, Dec. 11, 2015). But the deal failed due to opposition from some environmentalists and the leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (E&E Daily, Dec. 16, 2015).

Today, Bishop says the ball is in the Senate’s court. Last summer, the House passed H.R. 2647, a bill introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) that was partially incorporated into the failed omnibus deal.

"There are voices out there that are simply saying, ‘Well, let’s just put more money into it.’ No, they got to realize that is not going to be effective," Bishop said. "The bill that we passed is a great bill. It’s got to be picked up by the Senate, and it has to be moved by the Senate."

Grijalva expressed optimism that the issue would get hashed out in the coming months.

"It’s in all our districts, you know. So there’s no forgiveness, there’s no partisan designation on where the hell this is going to happen," he said. "That’s why I think that’s still doable."

‘Think big’

Other issues highlight the chasm between the majority and minority voices on the committee.

Grijalva wants to hike royalty rates for drilling on public lands, investigate the connection between fracking and earthquakes, and address climate change. Bishop is focused on increasing energy development, reforming land management agencies and giving states more control over public lands.

Bishop is also determined to push through big reforms, or what he calls a "paradigm readjustment."

"Almost everything we’re doing is in a different way," he said, later adding: "I’m not just going to reauthorize what we’ve done in the past. Let’s look at something new."

The debate over the Land and Water Conservation Fund provides some insight into Bishop’s legislative outlook.

Both Democrats and Republicans want to make the fund permanent. Funded through revenues from offshore oil and gas development, LWCF pays for federal land acquisitions, private land conservation easements, state recreation projects and endangered species grants.

But Bishop let it expire in September rather than sign on to a Senate bipartisan compromise that did not have the reforms he thinks are necessary. At one point, he urged colleagues to "think big."

Congress passed a short-term LWCF extension in the fiscal 2016 omnibus, without approval from Bishop.

Bishop now calls the extension "somewhat of a victory." But he pledged to pursue a bigger overhaul that would, among other things, curtail the purchase of new federal lands and require that 20 percent of the fund support the development of offshore energy.

"We could be doing so much good for people," Bishop said, "if we started to think outside the box and look at it differently."

For Grijalva, the goal is to push his priorities whenever Bishop opens the door to negotiations.

"I’ve taken advantage of that opening as much as I can. But, you know, if he doesn’t agree, it’s not going to happen," Grijalva said. "The back and forth has been about agreeing and disagreeing. Hopefully this next year the back and forth is going to be about some middle ground on some stuff."