House GOP Wants to Make It Nearly Impossible for Obama to Create New National Monuments

The House won’t let President Bartlet — er, President Obama — get away with this one.

The Grand Canyon's North Rim on July 22, 2013.
National Journal
March 26, 2014, 10:43 a.m.

The House will vote Wed­nes­day night to as­sert its au­thor­ity over the ex­ec­ut­ive branch, likely passing a bill that would re­vamp a 108-year-old law that would make it harder for Pres­id­ent Obama to de­clare na­tion­al monu­ments on fed­er­al lands.

The situ­ation re­minds us of an early epis­ode of West Wing (Sea­son 1, Epis­ode 8, “En­emies,” to be ex­act). Just as the Bart­let ad­min­is­tra­tion is on the cusp of passing a sweep­ing bank­ing-re­form bill, two sen­at­ors on the Bank­ing, Hous­ing, and Urb­an Af­fairs Com­mit­tee at­tach a rider that would al­low strip min­ing on fed­er­al lands that cov­er half the state of Montana. After ar­guing wheth­er to swal­low the min­ing pro­vi­sion or veto the en­tire bank­ing bill, Bart­let’s deputy chief of staff, Josh Ly­man, finds the per­fect solu­tion to pro­tect Big Sky: the An­tiquit­ies Act.

The 1906 law, used so clev­erly in West Wing, al­lows the pres­id­ent to uni­lat­er­ally de­clare large swaths of fed­er­al lands as na­tion­al monu­ments. Not long after the bill passed Con­gress, Theodore Roosevelt used the An­tiquit­ies Act to es­tab­lish the Grand Canyon Na­tion­al Monu­ment, which later be­came Grand Canyon Na­tion­al Park (seen in all its glory here). The le­gis­la­tion has since been used to cre­ate the Statue of Liberty Na­tion­al Monu­ment and dozens of oth­ers.

But the law is far too sweep­ing, House Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue, be­cause it al­lows ad­min­is­tra­tions to pro­tect fed­er­al lands without con­sid­er­ing the wishes of loc­al cit­izens and gov­ern­ments, not to men­tion Con­gress.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion on West Wing is hardly the first to use the An­tiquit­ies Act to cir­cum­vent the wishes of Con­gress. The up­roar that fol­lowed Roosevelt’s es­tab­lish­ment of Jack­son Hole Na­tion­al Monu­ment in 1943 res­ul­ted in con­gres­sion­al up­roar and even­tu­ally a 1950 law pre­vent­ing the pres­id­ent from cre­at­ing any na­tion­al monu­ments in the state of Wyom­ing without ex­press ap­prov­al from Con­gress. There’s a sim­il­ar law on the books per­tain­ing to Alaska, en­acted after former Pres­id­ent Carter de­clared 17 monu­ments there total­ing 56 mil­lion acres on a single day in 1978.

Now the House is push­ing le­gis­la­tion that would sig­ni­fic­antly curb it. The En­sur­ing Pub­lic In­volve­ment in the Cre­ation of Na­tion­al Monu­ments Act, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bish­op, R-Utah, would re­quire fed­er­al agen­cies to do an en­vir­on­ment­al study and in­ter­view loc­al cit­izens who would be af­fected by any na­tion­al-monu­ment de­clar­a­tion be­fore the pres­id­ent can take ac­tion. It would also lim­it the pres­id­ent to cre­at­ing just one na­tion­al monu­ment per state in a four-year term and re­quire a study on the eco­nom­ic im­pact of turn­ing such land in­to a na­tion­al monu­ment.

Sig­ni­fic­antly, the law does provide an “emer­gency ex­emp­tion” that would al­low the pres­id­ent to pro­tect less than 5,000 acres of land in areas that face “an im­min­ent threat to an Amer­ic­an an­tiquity.” But the pro­vi­sion would only last for three years, un­less Con­gress ap­proves it for per­man­ent pro­tec­tion.

The bill’s op­pon­ents have dubbed it the “No More Parks Act,” not­ing that the qual­i­fic­a­tions for pro­tect­ing fed­er­al lands are so high as to be pro­hib­it­ive. Pro­ponents note that only Con­gress can cre­ate a na­tion­al park. This le­gis­la­tion deals with na­tion­al monu­ments, which are sim­il­ar, but have dif­fer­ent fund­ing and man­age­ment and lack the amen­it­ies of na­tion­al parks. They’re also, gen­er­ally, much smal­ler.

Obama is ex­pec­ted to veto the meas­ure if it reaches his desk, though the bill isn’t likely to pass the Sen­ate any­way.

Why House Re­pub­lic­ans are push­ing the bill now, more than 100 years after the law passed Con­gress, is in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. Many have poin­ted to Obama’s des­ig­na­tion earli­er this month of 1,665 acres of fed­er­al lands in North­ern Cali­for­nia as part of the Cali­for­nia Coastal Na­tion­al Monu­ment. But the House already agreed to that pro­pos­al on a un­an­im­ous vote. That bill was sponsored by Rep. Jared Huff­man, D-Cal­if., but had yet to gain any trac­tion in the Sen­ate, where the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fed­er­al nom­in­ees and aid to Ukraine have taken a pri­or­ity.

The is­sue is not en­tirely about safe­guard­ing fed­er­al lands. Rather, the House vote is about the le­gis­lat­ive branch as­sert­ing its power. Obama de­clared in his State of the Uni­on ad­dress this year that he would “use [his] au­thor­ity to pro­tect more of our pristine fed­er­al lands for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.” And as with many oth­er is­sues, House Re­pub­lic­ans are in­tent on pre­vent­ing the ex­ec­ut­ive branch from over­step­ping that au­thor­ity.

This post has been up­dated to cla­ri­fy the dis­tinc­tion between na­tion­al parks, which must be cre­ated by Con­gress, and na­tion­al monu­ments, which the pres­id­ent has the au­thor­ity to cre­ate.

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