On Tuesday, January 3—the very first day of the the 115th Congress—the House of Representatives voted 234-193 to approve a new rules package that includes a provision that will make it easier for Congress to sell off federal public land.
The language in House Resolution 5 might not sound all that threatening, but it was crafted by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, with the express intent of reducing scrutiny and accountability in the process of selling or transferring federal public land. Bishop is the biggest cheerleader of the federal land transfer movement in the U.S. Congress.
Here's the exact language of the new rule, with the threatening phrase in bold:
LAND.— (1) IN GENERAL.—In the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, for all purposes in the House, a provision in a bill or joint resolution, or in an amendment thereto or a conference report thereon, requiring or authorizing a conveyance of Federal land to a State, local government, or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays. (2) DEFINITIONS.—In this subsection: (A) The term ‘‘conveyance’’ means any method, including sale, donation, or exchange, by which all or any portion of the right, title, and interest of the United States in and to Federal land is transferred to another entity. (B) The term ‘‘Federal land’’ means any land owned by the United States, including the surface estate, the subsurface estate, or any improvements thereon. (C) The term ‘‘State’’ means any of the several States, the District of Columbia, or a territory (including a possession) of the United States.
The new rule means that Congress can now authorize the "conveyance" of federal public land without having to account for that land's value or replace lost value with budget cuts or new sources of revenue, as the current law requires. Elizabeth Shogren from High Country News sums it up well in her recent article on the new House rules:
"Previously, when Congress wanted to transfer public lands managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or other federal agency, the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ research arm, calculated the cost to the U.S. Treasury by computing what revenues the lands provide over 10 years, such as grazing fees or oil and gas royalties. Under House rules, before a bill approving a transfer could be adopted, budget cuts would have to be made in other federal programs equal to the value of that land. The rules change eliminates that budgetary barrier to land transfer bills."
When I wrote in November about the threat to public land posed by the incoming G.O.P. Congress & President Trump, some people accused me of fear-mongering. I'm not afraid—I'm clear-eyed and pragmatic. The G.O.P made land transfer part of its official platform last summer, and they haven't wasted a moment's time pushing that agenda in the new Congress. They're the ones saying they want to divest the U.S. of its federal public lands, and now that ball is rolling.