House Republicans have built their brand on cutting spending, but that pledge becomes painful when it means slashing funds destined for their own districts.
Such is the case with the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which sends federal funding to rural governments to compensate for inconsistent timber revenues from national forests. The program has doled out about $4.5 billion since its inception in 2000 and currently funds more than 600 counties in 41 states.
But the initiative is set to expire at the end of September, leaving rural lawmakers of both parties looking for a way to keep the money flowing home at a time when federal spending is the touchiest of subjects.
And if Congress can’t find a way to keep the tap from running dry, Republicans will likely pay the heaviest price.
About 70 percent of the benefiting counties fall within GOP-held congressional districts, said Marc Kelley of the Partnership for Rural America Campaign, which is lobbying hard for reauthorization. Worse still for the GOP, he said, many of those seats are in swing districts that Republicans snatched from Blue Dog Democrats in 2010.
In at least half of the counties, losing that funding could lead to layoffs for teachers, firefighters, search and rescue teams and law enforcement officials, effects that Kelley said would cause voters to take “tremendous notice.”
But with Republicans fighting tooth and nail over the debt ceiling, extending the status quo is unlikely to get the party’s approval. And so Republicans are asking Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a former schoolteacher and chairman of the public lands panel, to find a solution.
Bishop’s task is further complicated by the cut-go rule, which requires any new spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere and does not allow legislators to collect new federal revenue to keep their bills from exacerbating the deficit.
“There’s no way a straight reauthorization passes this Congress, and it probably shouldn’t,” Bishop told POLITICO. “What we’re doing right now is simply paying school districts not to use the land; that’s kind of dumb.”
Backed into a corner, Bishop is going for a double victory: pushing new land-use regulations to expand logging and other resource development — another top priority for Republicans — in order to generate new timber royalty revenues for the countiesto offset declining federal funds.
Bishop made his opening move at a hearing of the public lands panel Thursday, when he and fellow Republicans made the call for expanded logging and attempted to pin the blame for rural funding woes on the Obama administration.
“The Secure Rural Schools legislation was originally intended to serve as a temporary program until policy changes could be made to restore county payments derived from timber receipts,” GOP committee staff said in a memo. “However, federal lands continue to remain under lock and key by the Obama administration, limiting economic development in local communities.”
Bishop went a step further, saying the program pays “hush monies … to communities in exchange for not being able to use their lands.”
But by trying to find funding in more logging, Republicans risk alienating Democrats in the House and Senate, where Democrats would have the votes to block the bill if they think it goes too far in relaxing conservation rules.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told POLITICO that it would set a “dangerous precedent” to ramp up logging without keeping to green guidelines and predicted it would be a major point of contention in the discussion going forward.
Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio said a compromise can be found between the environmentalists and those looking to ramp up forest revenue, adding that he is negotiating with moderates from both camps in search of a deal.
“I’m certain Mr. Bishop would have a much more simple solution, which obviously wouldn’t go anywhere in the Senate and probably would engender tremendous opposition from environmentalists,” DeFazio said. “I’m having a hard time keeping reasonable environmentalists on board with just my approach, but I think we can do that and keep pushing ahead.”
The program’s best hope for reauthorization may be in the Senate, where Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden — who co-authored the bill with former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) when it first passed in 2000 and is unconstrained by the cut-go rules — is working with Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico to find funding for a short-term extension.
The Obama administration is proposing to extend the program for five more years, albeit with considerable reductions to funding levels, Forest Service Associate Chief Mary Wagner told the House panel Thursday.
If the Secure Rural Schools initiative survives its current trails, it won’t be the program’s first narrow escape. The original authorization ran out in 2006, but legislators authorized an extension as part of a stopgap spending bill to fund veterans’ care, Iraq War expenses and Hurricane Katrina recovery. And when that ran out, the program survived through funds tucked into the Troubled Asset Relief Program for banks.
But DeFazio said the anti-spending fervor could make this round all the more difficult.
“Under the rules of the House, I don’t see any way of doing a reauthorization, since the last time the program was reauthorized, it was paid for by closing tax loopholes,” DeFazio said. Reauthorization “would have to come from the Senate side, and it would still ultimately, probably require a waiver of rules in the House.”
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