House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raul Grijalva is calling into question rank-and-file Democratic commitment to combatting one of the most controversial Trump administration regulatory rollbacks: the dramatic downsizing of the Bears Ears National Monument.
And he’s not alone. One of his top lieutenants, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, also aired frustration following dismal Democratic turnout at a hearing on Republican Bears Ears legislation.
The hearing last week quickly degenerated into partisan warfare, and Democrats were left outnumbered roughly 4 to 1 for a large part of the proceeding. Now, Grijalva is publicly exhorting his colleagues to step up the fight.
“We’ve talked about it and we’re going to talk about it as a group, but on those signature, very important issues like Bears Ears, there’s just got to be a bigger effort on our part,” he said.
Utah lawmakers are aiming to codify Trump’s decision to shrink Bears Ears. Rep. John Curtis, the Republican sponsoring the bill considered at the hearing, said the legislation would prevent future administrations from using the region as a political battleground.
Democratic committee members left Grijalva, Lowenthal, and Rep. Ruben Gallego alone to speak in opposition, creating an opportunity for Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop and other Republicans to speak at length in support for the legislation.
“I was shocked that there were not more Democrats there,” Lowenthal said. “I was very surprised that people don’t understand that this is a direct assault on the previous administration’s monument policy and also a direct attack on the sovereignty of Native Americans.”
Democrats and Republicans alike often say the Natural Resources panel is one of the most partisan in the lower chamber. Grijalva’s predecessor as ranking member, Rep. Peter DeFazio, said that can disillusion minority members and lead some to step back on their work with the committee.
“It’s a very unproductive committee,” said DeFazio, now the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It’s particularly frustrating to be on the committee.”
Gallego, who is sponsoring legislation to significantly expand the Bears Ears monument beyond President Obama’s proclamation, left last week’s hearing without questioning witnesses. Democrats are, however, using an arcane legislative rule to force another hearing on the Bears Ears legislation, which is now scheduled for Jan. 30.
One Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, indicated reluctance to run headlong into the policy priorities of Bishop, who represents a district close to the Bears Ears area and is a staunch proponent of the Trump proclamation.
“To achieve her objectives, the congresswoman must work in a bipartisan fashion with the Natural Resources chair and committee members, including her Democratic colleagues, and balance caucus priorities with other competing interests to meet the needs of her constituents,” a spokesman for Hanabusa said.
Bishop regularly marks up partisan legislation notwithstanding Democratic complaints.
On the day of the Bears Ears hearing, Hanabusa, who holds the top Democratic spot on the Federal Lands Subcommittee, was on the campaign trail in her bid for governor of Hawaii. Lowenthal sat in for her.
The committee’s Democratic side has a notoriously high turnover rate. Two former members of Grijalva’s ranks left during this Congress for the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Another decamped for the appropriations and oversight committees. Four of the current committee members are freshmen.
All of the Democrats on the subpanel that held the Bears Ears hearing represent urban or eastern districts, with the exception of Grijalva, whose district spans nearly the entire Arizona border with Mexico. Meanwhile, Western lawmakers comprise a big portion of the Republican committee membership.
“I’ve noticed that really for the last six years now … the Democrats tend not to attend the Natural Resources Committee hearings and the Republicans do,” said Federal Lands Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, who represents a large district in western California that includes some of the Sierra Nevada mountains. “Natural resources issues disproportionately affect rural communities, and those communities are sick and tired of having their regions dictated to.”
President Trump has aggressively scaled down or abolished Obama-era regulations since taking office, delivering on campaign pledges to free up the American economy from federal rules. Early last month, the White House slashed the Bears Ears monument by 85 percent—the equivalent of roughly 1.1 million acres.
That decision came about a year after the Obama administration designated the two wilderness areas as monuments using the 1906 Antiquities Act, a move that sparked ire from the Utah congressional delegation and critics of federal land ownership writ large. The Obama proclamation marked the culmination of decades of interest in the monument.
Now, the Interior Department is pushing the ball forward with the new designations. The department requested public comments Tuesday to help compile its environmental assessment for resource management on the remaining monuments.
Republicans tout the Curtis legislation as the path to establish the first national monuments with genuine comanagement between Indian tribes and other layers of government. But the lone elected member of an Indian tribe who testified at the hearing, Shaun Chapoose, a Ute Tribal Business Committee member, roundly rejected the legislation, calling it a return to a 19th-century policy of federal meddling in Indian affairs.
“The bill pours salt on a wound caused by the president’s action,” he said. “The politics are clear. Not a single sovereign tribe was consulted for this bill.”
The legislation empowers the president to compose councils, made up of tribal members and local county officials, to oversee the designated areas. Members of Congress from Utah, who often battle with native tribes, are allowed to participate in that appointment process.
The Antiquities Act seeks to preserve Native American artifacts, which are scattered across Utah. Republicans argue that the Obama administration designations failed to stamp out decades-long looting by putting in place the personnel to protect those artifacts.
The Ute, along with the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni, are suing the Trump administration over the designation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
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