March 14, 2016

Overcoming Fear of Overdue Reform

It is often said that the first step in recovery is to acknowledge the problem with honesty and candor.  We usually think of this in the context of someone battling alcohol or drug addiction.  But the usefulness and necessity of this first step can be applied well beyond that aspect of our society.

I have been wondering why otherwise-reasonable people are so unwilling to declare an obvious truth: The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a problem and we need to fix it.  Granted, many Republican politicians are quick to say this, but they are nearly alone.  Democratic politicians recoil at even the most benign invitation to discuss amendments to the ESA.  For some, this is because their closest political allegiances are with environmental special interests (e.g., the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council).  For them, the ESA is not just a statute, it is among the founding charter documents of the American environmental movement. (The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act being the others.)  Democratic politicians in this category represent the barricade to reform.

But there are many members of Congress who understand the economic and social damage that overly-strident implementation of the ESA has wrought and still avoid leaning forward to work on even the most moderate reforms.  Their constituents—homebuilders, commercial builders, farmers, manufacturers (and all their employees) suffer the lost jobs and growth opportunities left in the ESA’s wake.  Still, most of these politicians wave off any attempt to start a discussion about ESA reform as “too politically dangerous.”  And then they say, “Look what happened to Richard Pombo.”

Richard Pombo, a rancher and dairyman, was a Republican congressman from San Joaquin County who was first elected in 1992.  After serving several terms, he was given the gavel as Chairman of the House Resources Committee, a perfect fit for an agriculturalist and private property rights defender whose own property was impacted by federal agencies’ implementation of the ESA.  After leading a thoughtful process to develop reforms that would limit the federal government’s power over private property owners, his legislation was passed by the House in 2005.  The U.S. Senate, however, did not approve the Pombo bill and the effort fizzled.

Having come relatively close to success, Pombo attracted the focused attention of environmental special interests.  The Sierra Club tagged Pombo as an “eco-thug” and together with their allies engineered a massive volunteer and fundraising effort that combined with an increasingly Bay Area-oriented district to defeat Pombo in 2006.

Ten years later, almost any discussion on Capitol Hill about ESA reform still starts and ends with, “Remember what happened to Pombo.”

I can’t accept that.  As I’ve written recently in this column, there is a dearth of statesmen in Congress today.  Too few in Congress are willing to take measured political risks for the sake of solving vexing problems that harm real people back home.  Immigration reform and water supply relief were the topics of that recent column, but the same is true for Endangered Species Act reform.

What is the point of running for Congress—and enduring the grind of asking people for contributions, being away from home and family to attend endless fundraisers and community events, weathering harsh and often very personal attacks from opponents—if not to make a lasting mark as a legislator who solved some of the big problems, rather than just playing it safe in order to keep the title?

The ESA, in its modern form, was enacted in 1973 following President Richard Nixon’s call to Congress to strengthen the “management tools” available to the federal government to protect designated threatened and endangered species.

Despite the tone of the rhetoric our friends in the environmental interest groups use, the Endangered Species Act is not among the charter documents of our nation’s founding.  It is not etched in stone.  It is not embedded in the U.S. Constitution.  It is a statute, the product of the give-and-take, negotiation, and conflict and compromise that have always been the foundation upon which legislative bodies produce new laws.  Statutes not only can be amended, they should be as experience reveals flaws or unintended consequences.  That has certainly been the case with the ESA, which I’ll discuss a bit more next month, along with actions Western Growers is taking to help revive interest in meaningful and balanced reforms.