Will Modest Electoral Change Spur Congress to Act?

Your Wilderness - December 2012

It may have been the most expensive campaign season in American history, but now that the dust has settled, the overall effect of all those television ads and emails is a 113th Congress looking pretty much like the current one, with the status quo preserved in Washington. And just as it was before any ballots were cast this year, wilderness legislation remains stalled.

The Democratic Party held on to the White House and the Senate, while Republicans maintained their majority in the House of Representatives. Democrats increased their Senate majority from 53 to 55 (including Maine independent Angus King, who plans to caucus with Democrats) and improved the number of their House seats. When the 113th Congress convenes Jan. 3, it will do so with a new chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Ron Wyden. In the House, Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) will retain his chairmanship of the Committee on Natural Resources.

Meeting in a lame-duck session after the election, the Senate used its first roll call vote to initiate debate on Jon Tester's (D-Mont.) Sportsmen's Act (S.3525), which would increase access to federal lands for hunters and anglers while promoting wildlife habitat conservation. On November 27th, a vote on final passage failed when legislators upheld a budgetary point of order against S. 3525, agreeing that new fees for duck stamps violated previously agreed upon debt limits. The fate of S. 3525 remains unclear, though it has already been offered as an amendment to the 2013 Defense Authorization Act. Other pending legislative priorities include a farm bill and an agreement on handling the ramifications of a bundle of shifting tax laws and spending cuts that would take effect at midnight Dec. 31st—the “fiscal cliff.”

The enormity of the latter problem, compounded by the narrow time frame facing Congress, means it's unlikely that lawmakers will pass any sizable assemblage of bills to protect public lands, despite more than two dozen pending wilderness proposals. What remains to be seen is whether a very small package of public lands bills might be attached to a larger “must pass” measure before the year is out. Any such bill must be bipartisan and win approval by both the House and Senate. Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee have admitted the difficulty in crafting such a package. Still, if this Congress fails to pass any of these bills, it will be the first in nearly 50 years to add no land to the nation's wilderness legacy.

The 112th Congress faces an intimidating task in its final month. Beyond forestalling the fiscal cliff, many worthy wilderness bills remain that deserve consideration. Pew is dedicated to seeing Congress complete its unfinished business and pass legislation that not only protects America's most unique wild places, but also preserves our access to spectacular hunting and fishing and supports local outdoor economies.