The Great American Outdoors Act Process is Broken

June 11, 2020

Response to the objection of my amendments

Click here for online versions of my purposed amendments: The Great American Outdoors Act is an expensive, shortsighted mistake

Mr./Madam President,

It is telling that the bill we’re considering this week, called the Great American Outdoors Act, was written behind closed doors and is now being hermetically sealed, walled off from amendments by the American people’s elected representatives.

Forget the theatrics in Seattle – this bill is the real “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.”
In its current form, it enables the federal government to purchase new lands in perpetuity – without accountability, oversight, or any measures to make sure it can actually care for the land that it owns… perpetuating, and worsening, our already problematic federal lands policy.

This policy will have one overarching impact: to make life easier for politicians and bureaucrats, and harder for the Americans they ostensibly serve.

Mr./Madam President, this is not the way the Senate is supposed to run.

The point of this body is to take imperfect bills to the floor, and come together so that we can hone and finetune them. The Senate is supposed to have an open debate and amendment process, precisely so that we can raise concerns, find solutions, and arrive at compromise and consensus.

And this week, I have been encouraged to see how many of my colleagues want to do just that.

Many of my colleagues – from different states, and both parties – are filing amendments to this bill. Some would significantly change it; others are small tweaks to tighten up the language or provide better congressional oversight.

These amendments have already been written. They are waiting for consideration. Anyone watching C-SPAN2 today will notice… there’s nothing else happening on the Senate floor. There is literally no other business with pressing deadlines.

The Senate right now would simply rather do nothing than vote on amendments those of us from the west, Senators from the Gulf Coast, and from around the country would like to propose.

I have several myself.

One of my amendments would require state legislative approval for any land acquisition proposed in that state, so that land acquisition would be something Washington does with the states rather than to the states.

Another of my amendments would require the federal government to dispose of current federal lands before acquiring any new ones – forcing land agencies to exercise fiscal responsibility and prioritize which lands they keep under their control.

I’ve also got a number of amendments that would reform the NEPA process to help address the maintenance backlog on neglected land Washington already owns.

And finally, I have an amendment to support Utah’s interests under the Antiquities Act. Right now, other states are protected from unilateral land grabs by the federal government for designation of national monuments; and because 28% of the national monument acreage designated in the 50 states over the last twenty-five years has been in Utah, my state is due the same kind of protections that Wyoming and Alaska already enjoy.

I believe that is one of the most important changes we need to see in federal lands policy, and I will continue to fight for it until we achieve justice for Utah.

But as important as all these amendments are to me and my state, I’m not even asking for the right to propose all of them this week. I’m willing to set aside some of my priorities to help my colleagues pursue theirs, and most of all to help the Senate as an institution to get back to the essential work that it alone can do.

The Senate was created to be the place – the one place in our constitutional framework – where our diverse, divided nation could come together, air our disagreements, and find common ground.

Every time we have a national controversy, everyone throws around the word “conversation.” We need to have a “conversation” about race, about police brutality, about freedom of speech, about the environment, about the national debt, you name it.

This isn’t just a media trope; Senators say it too. And I agree.

But guess what: this, right here, is literally the room where America is supposed to have these conversations. It’s not supposed to be done only on Twitter, or on cable news shows. It’s supposed to happen right here on this floor. But look around.

The only reason the United States Senate was given the powers we have, by the Founders and by our constituents, is to facilitate those vital conversations.
This isn’t the New York Times op-ed page. We’re not supposed to be afraid of debate here.

The Senate is here to provide the venue where all Americans and all views can be heard, hash out our differences, and arrive at consensus and compromise in the public eye.

And this is not for our convenience and comfort.

Rather, the Senate’s purpose as a deliberative body is to add another layer of republican and democratic legitimacy to the laws we pass. The House exists to assert immediate public opinion; the Senate exists to identify broad-based compromise and consensus that is essential to political legitimacy in a nation as diverse as ours.

That’s why we require supermajorities to end debate. That’s why we have six-year terms. It’s not to serve us; it’s so we can serve everyone else.

But right now, we are abusing our constitutional privilege. We are willfully taking the powers the American people have given us to deny them their right to a diverse, deliberative, transparent lawmaking process. And for no other purpose than our own convenience.

No wonder they can’t stand us.

But, Mr./Madam President, it’s not too late. Not even for this week. There is still plenty of time to salvage this process, to flex our atrophying legislative muscles, and get to work.

After speaking with my colleagues all week, I believe the consensus concerns about this bill are as follows:

The inequity of natural resource revenue-sharing between the federal government and the states;
The cost of the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund;
The cost of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF);
The implications of ever-expanding federal land ownership; and
Transparency for the LWCF.

We could pick just one amendment for each category – just five amendments altogether – and make significant progress on this legislation.

And more than that, we could strengthen our legislative muscle memory, and take a step towards restoring the rightful deliberative powers of this body.

Five amendments is not a lot, Mr./Madam President, especially considering this legislative text bypassed the committee process in the first place.

Even if the Senate votes those amendments down, at least then we will be on record about our priorities and positions. That will strengthen the bonds of accountability between the government and the governed and, hopefully, restore some of the public trust Washington has squandered for the last several decades.

If we require senators to speak on their amendments and then move to a vote, we could dispose of all five in a few hours.

It’s not too much to ask. We ought to give this – like all – legislation the due consideration and careful deliberation that it deserves.

And now more than ever, our country needs us to be able to come together, work together, and find solutions to the problems that we face.

I believe this bill presents an opportunity to do so, and I am hopeful that my colleagues and I will get the chance to take it.