Dec. 14–Congress passed a $1.01 trillion omnibus bill Thursday that will keep the U.S. government running through next fall.
The final legislation saw House Speaker John Boehner go begging for Democrats as he lost tea party support, including that of Rep. Raul Labrador. But most Democrats also turned their backs on the package thanks to last-minute additions, such as greater protections for Wall Street and even larger campaign contribution limits.
The massive budget contains more than just high-profile policy statements, though. A lot of what’s in there, or notably absent, directly affects Idaho and the West.
Here’s what’s there, what isn’t and what we like.
Sage Grouse, A One-year Reprieve
The funding package bans the Department of Interior from declaring the sage grouse an endangered species for at least a year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court order to decide whether to list the iconic bird. But Thursday, Congress said any designation has to wait.
A listing of the sage grouse would be a significant blow to the West, making millions of acres off limits to development. The bird’s possible extinction is also disturbing. There has to be a better way.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said recently she would like to find a solution that avoids listing the bird. The players are there. Now it has to get done.
The one-year reprieve gives the 11 states, including Idaho, time to finalize their mitigation plans and possibly avoid an endangered species listing. The states, most of which still permit sage grouse hunting, have to get serious about protecting the bird. They have time. Now get serious and use it.
Emergency Wildfire Funding Stalls Again
Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson are part of a dandy little bipartisan bill that would treat massive wildfires for what they are — natural disasters.
The potentially $2.7 billion proposal would make available emergency funding for especially large blazes. The big ones are the problem. Cash that should be spent managing the forests so they don’t burn so hot is instead getting routed to firefighting. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have for years been robbing Peter to pay Paul, creating a viscous, destructive cycle.
But the bill ran into a conservative wall this year, after President Barack Obama championed the measure as part of his broader climate change initiative. Linking more funding with global warming was like pouring battery acid in soup for conservatives in Congress.
The Wildfire Funding bill was part of the Senate’s approved omnibus, but Republican budget hawks in the House killed it yet again. The Senate swings GOP in January, which could doom the legislation altogether. Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is the bill’s sponsor in the upper house, and he’s about to lose substantial influence. Things aren’t looking good for this right-minded bit of legislation.
But a Simpson staffer told us Thursday that her boss hasn’t given up. He’s building the argument that, in the end, fully funding fire suppression will save cash.
White Potatoes for All
Members of Congress from potato-growing states have for years been annoyed with the Department of Agriculture for banning white potatoes from the Women, Infants and Children food voucher program.
USDA scientists contend the starchy tuber doesn’t offer the health benefits of other vegetables. Even more alarming, the poor who are most likely to receive WIC already eat too many french fries and baked potatoes topped with sour cream, butter and cheese, USDA scientists contend.
Crapo, Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Mike Simpson earlier this year signed a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack demanding inclusion of the white potato in the WIC voucher program. Vilsack pushed back and defended his department’s science. We took a shot this summer at the three Idaho Republicans for being more concerned with the potato lobby than the poor.
Well, the bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from potato-growing states won this one. White potatoes are officially available with WIC vouchers for better or worse.