This week, House Republicans got so much blowback from their attempt to neuter the independent congressional ethics office that they quickly reversed course. The tone-deaf assault on ethics oversight was part of a bigger package of rules changes that included another provision that should also have been stopped, but was not: a scheme to give away federal lands.
The change, approved by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives on Tuesday, eliminates the requirement to account for the cost of turning over federal lands to state or local governments. Out of such small revisions are revolutions made.
In this case, the revolt is being led by Republican politicians in the West with the enthusiastic backing of developers, mining companies and oil drillers who have long lusted after the vast areas of land that have been kept as a legacy for the American people. Those business interests know they can far more easily get their greedy hands on these pristine areas if the federal government is out of the picture and the only people they need to influence are malleable state legislators and timid local officials.
The ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Arizona Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, issued a statement urging his fellow Democrats to oppose the change — which they did to no avail. "The House Republican plan to give away America's public lands for free is outrageous and absurd," Grijalva said. "This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value."
Republicans argue that folks living in Western states are unduly burdened because the federal government owns so much of the land, a share of territory that ranges from 30% in Washington state to nearly 85% in Nevada. They argue that, with control in the hand of the folks who live nearby, the land would be better managed and put to better use.
Environmentalists counter that cash-strapped local governments would be unable to resist the temptation to make money off the land by selling it to the highest bidder. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the people who has expressed agreement with this view is President-elect Donald Trump. In an interview with Field & Stream magazine, Trump said he feared local and state authorities would unload the land to raise revenue.
"And I don't think it's something that should be sold," Trump said. "We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land."
Those are encouraging words, but, of course, Trump says a lot of things to please whatever audience he is addressing — in this case, the hunters and fishermen who read Field & Stream. More reassuring is his choice to run the Department of the Interior, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke. A foe of federal land transfers, Zinke may be the best-positioned ally for those who do not want to see tract homes, strip malls, oil fields and mining operations spreading like a stain across undeveloped regions of the West.
The test will be whether Zinke can resist the relentless attacks on federal lands that are sure to be coming from congressional Republicans and whether, when it comes to a fight, he has the backing of his boss.