The Post-Election Outlook for Utah Wilderness

Last night the Republican Party gained a majority in the U.S. Senate to match its existing control of the House of Representatives. Now what?

For Utah wilderness, a shift in White House control generally means more than a reshuffled congressional deck, largely because of the Executive Branch’s control of land management agencies. But even off-year elections matter, and so will this one.

Not all Republicans are bad on environmental issues, nor are all Democrats good. But when it comes to the Congress, the League of Conservation Voters paints a clear picture. In the first session of the 113th Congress, House Republicans’ votes were good for the environment just 5 percent of the time, with House Democrats scoring 87 percent on average. Senate Republicans scored an average of 17 percent; Senate Democrats 92 percent. It is bad news for the environment that the Republicans now run the Senate.

For starters, the Republican majority may prevent the administration’s filling of federal court vacancies—any vacancy, no matter how qualified the appointee. And the Senate will no longer act as the reliable counterweight to terrible anti-environment bills coming from the House, a role it has played since the 2010 election.

Digging through the ordure for the Shetland pony that must surely be here somewhere, we find some solace in the likelihood that an anti-environmental majority will likely last only two years, given the balance of Senate seats up in 2016. That overlaps the time remaining in President Barack Obama’s second term. Partisan warfare will probably intensify. If you were disgusted with the last Congress, the next one may send you around the bend.

Some Senate races remain undecided. But even if Republicans win them, they’ll still be shy of the three-fifths majority needed to override Democratic filibusters and the two-thirds supermajority needed to override a presidential veto. Thus, the Republican leadership has indicated it will operate by attaching riders to major spending bills that the government needs to pass in order to operate—and spending bills are not subject to filibusters. Expect an anti-environmental majority to use this route to repeal Obama’s efforts to address climate change and to hobble the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce corporate pollution.

As the House and Senate spend the next two years attacking President Obama, he could respond as Bill Clinton did by creating a legacy of protected American landscapes under the Antiquities Act. Please!

Here in Utah, we’ll hope the congressional delegation continues discussions with us to seek resolution of tough wilderness issues through Mr. Bishop’s public lands initiative. We’ll also hope the new power balance will not tempt the delegation to follow some of our kookiest state legislators in their fencepost-dumb drive to seize public lands instead.

Some specific races deserve mention. Sadly, Doug Owens, the son of the original Redrock Champion Wayne Owens, lost his bid for Utah’s 4th congressional district. Long time redrock supporter Colorado Senator Mark Udall lost his re-election bid. On a brighter note, in Grand County, Moab residents sent a sharp rebuke to county council members hell bent on ripping apart the Book Cliffs with a highway to foster dirty fuels development. And lead Redrock champion Senator Richard Durbin won his fourth term.

We’ve experienced similar flips in congressional control before. In 1994, the Republicans gained control of both House and Senate for first time in 40 years. That set off a seismic wave against the Redrock. The Utah congressional delegation tried to ram through a terrible “wilderless” bill, but we stopped Rep. Hansen in the House. A filibuster by Bill Bradley, then a New Jersey senator, blocked Utah’s two senators, Hatch and Bennett. President Bill Clinton’s response was to proclaim the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

George W. Bush won the White House in 2002 while the Republicans already held the Senate and House, bringing the “drill baby drill” mentality to public lands management. We fought back with litigation against their mindless rush to drill. We won.

No matter what this election brings, because of you we will endure and prevail. We always have.