March 16, 2009 at 9:36AM
by Jim DiPeso
It's on to Plan B for S. 22, the omnibus lands bill that hit a Republican pothole and a Democratic patch of ice before fishtailing into a ditch last week in the House.
This week, the Senate plans to take up again the most important conservation bill that Congress has considered in more than a decade. More than 150 elements would protect 2 million acres of wilderness, establish three new national parks, a monument and several conservation areas, designate scenic rivers and trails, create new heritage areas, and authorize ocean research programs. There is plenty to like and very little to not.
Assuming that the Senate can pass it again with a substantial bipartisan majority, as it did in January, it's back to the House, and then possibly back to the Senate once more before the sausage machine has had its fill and sends the bill to the White House.
The legislation should have been on its way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. last week. Instead, it fell victim to politics, thanks to Democrat leaders who outsmarted themselves and Republican leaders who have learned nothing from two election debacles.
House Democrats tried the risky strategy of passing the bill "under suspension," meaning no amendments were permitted but a two-thirds vote was needed for passage. Even with one-fifth of the Republicans defying their leadership, it fell two votes short.
The idea of trying to put the bill through under suspension was to avoid an expected motion to recommit from GOP recalcitrants, a maneuver designed to spike the bill. The suspension strategy didn't make much sense. A motion to recommit can be defeated by a simple majority. If Nancy Pelosi, with her fatter majority, can't muster the votes to squash a hostile motion against a popular bill, then what's the point of having a fatter majority?
Worse was the "statement of policy" from House Republican leaders. They remain obtuse to public concerns about protecting natural resources. With the mentality of generals fighting World War I, their idea of recovering from two consecutive election disasters is more of the same, only harder and louder.
There was the usual red herring about "locking up" land from energy development as if oil and gas drilling were, always and everywhere, the highest and best use of our natural heritage.
Then, there was the curious charge that the bill would "criminalize" collecting common fossils on public lands without a permit. The bill would allow casual, non-commercial collecting without a permit at the discretion of land managers in areas where it's otherwise not prohibited by law. More systematic collecting for scientific research or public education would need a permit. Who could argue against that?
The House Republican leaders, that's who. Their policy statement raised the specter of grim federal agents happening across kids collecting shark teeth from the beach, hauling the tykes off to the hoosegow, and charging them with racketeering.
No one should take such hyperbole seriously, but it does raise the question of who is clamoring for the right to collect large amounts of paleontological artifacts from public property without a permit. The artifacts, after all, belong to every citizen.
With luck, in the next few days, the arguments will be moot and this important conservation legislation will have the president's signature on it.