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Omnibus Public Lands Bill Completes Long, Winding Journey

The saga of the omnibus public lands bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in late March has been compared by at least one Congress watcher to a long and slow-moving wagon train. On the day that it finally cleared the House, Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) told his colleagues that the road leading us here today has been a long one and it has contained a few twists and turns along the way.

He should know. He and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) were the wagon masters and at times must have felt like they were doubling as a 20-mule team, pulling all 160 wagons. On the one hand, their deft procedural maneuvering out of legislative box canyons was a sight to behold. On the other, it was not a particularly pretty picture from an open and orderly process standpoint.

What ultimately saved the 1,218-page, $5.5 billion authorization bill (not a spending bill) was the fact that so many Representatives and Senators of both parties had spent so much time and effort on the multitude of projects in the legislation (roughly half to each party).

It all began routinely in the previous Congress when a host of individual public lands bills designating wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, hiking trails, heritage areas, water projects and historic preservation initiatives were reported and began working their way through the process. The House had passed roughly 70 of these over the course of the 110th Congress under the suspension of the rules process. (There is no such thing as a suspension calendar.) The suspension process, which is used for small, noncontroversial matters, permits just 40 minutes of debate, allows no amendments and requires a two-thirds vote for passage. That means suspension measures must have bipartisan backing. (Roughly 80 percent of all laws enacted by Congress originate under the House suspension process.)

The Senate committee had reported another 90 individual bills. But all were blocked by holds placed on them by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who objected to considering such measures under the traditional unanimous consent procedure, which allows for no debate or amendments. Coburn was concerned about the cumulative costs involved (when the authorizations are later funded through the appropriations process, which he said was inevitable) and about a variety of issues affecting private property rights.

In September, Bingaman bundled all 90 of his bills into an omnibus measure and also filed the package as an amendment to a small, House-passed park bill. Both efforts were thwarted by Coburn and died aborning.

When the current Congress convened in January, Bingaman again introduced his Omnibus Public Land Management Act, with all 160 House and Senate projects left over from last year, plus a few unrelated items from another omnibus bill that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was unable to pass in 2008. The bill was brought to the Senate floor without the benefit of a committee vote or report. (The closest thing to a committee report publicly available is a 71-page Congressional Research Service summary.) The Majority Leader easily won two cloture motions to prevent filibusters, filled the amendment tree to prevent anyone else from offering amendments and handily won final passage, 73-21, on Jan. 15.

When the omnibus measure came to the House, the leadership decided to bring it up under the suspension process, even though it violated Democratic Caucus Rule 38 guidelines against considering under suspension major legislation or bills that make or authorize appropriations in excess of $100 million. Under that rule, however, all that is needed to waive the guideline is clearance by the Democratic Steering Committee.

The majority leadership chose the suspension route to avoid any troublesome amendments that might torpedo the package and cause it to be sent back to the Senate. However, Rahall found it necessary at the last minute to attach several amendments to win over more votes. (Only a bills majority floor manager can amend a suspension bill.) Despite these tweaks, the bill still fell two votes short of the two-thirds needed to pass.

Ordinarily, if a bill fails under suspension but has majority support, it is taken to the House Rules Committee for a special rule that allows the bill to be reconsidered and passed by majority vote. However, in this instance, the leadership did not want to risk having a minority amendment adopted in a motion to recommit the bill with instructions (something the Rules Committee cannot prohibit).

Instead, House leaders prevailed on Reid to use a House-passed shell bill a six-page measure authorizing grants to acquire and protect Revolutionary and 1812 war battlefields and offer the 1,218-page omnibus lands bill as a substitute. In that way, when the bill came back to the House from the Senate, the House could simply adopt a special rule to concur in the Senate amendment without further amendments or motion to recommit, thereby sending the bill straight to the president.

This time Reid did let Coburn offer six amendments, one of which was adopted, before the Senate passed the bill, 77-20, on March 19. The House followed suit six days later, passing the identical measure, 285-140, after the Rules Committee had turned down 14 amendments requested by Members.

The morals of this long and winding saga are that all politics is local and that bipartisanship trumps everything from committee consideration and reports to a fair and open floor amendment process. From the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters this lands bill was made for you and me.