Forest-fee foes lobby against Ohio congressman

The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition announced Saturday that it is calling on its members and supporting organizations to oppose the selection of Congressman Ralph Regula (R-OH) as Chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee when the new Congress convenes in January.

The Coalition is asking House leadership to bypass Congressman Regula and appoint either Congressman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) or Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY) to lead the Committee for the next six years.

The move comes in response to Regula’s abuse of power in attaching a permanent public lands recreation fee program to the omnibus spending bill that was passed in a lame duck session of the outgoing Congress. The measure was originally introduced as HR 3283 and was sponsored by Regula, despite the fact that he has no federal public lands in his district. His bill failed to attract a single western co-sponsor and met fierce opposition among members of both the House and Senate and an outcry from the public, especially in the west where the bulk of public lands are located. The program authorizes five agencies (the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and National Park Service) to charge a Recreational Access Tax (RAT) for use of their facilities.

The WSNFC is opposing Regula’s Chairmanship on the grounds that:

• He has used his expectation of receiving the appointment to threaten withholding of funding for other members’ districts and to push his pet projects. Regula was able to strong-arm his fee measure to approval by the House Resources Committee in September, reportedly by threatening to deny future funding to other programs important to committee members.

• He has abused the appropriations process, repeatedly using omnibus spending bills to bypass the House floor and the entire Senate and enact substantive legislation that involves major policy changes for Federal agencies and heavy criminal penalties.

• By attaching his fee program, HR 3283, onto the omnibus bill, he has instigated the first new tax of the administration.

• He is hostile to true representative government, unresponsive to local and state elected bodies and insensitive to rural taxpayers, particularly in the west where the brunt of this new tax will be felt.

The WSNFC is also concerned that Congressman Regula, as Chair of the Appropriations Committee, would continue to be unreceptive to solving the core problems facing the federal land management agencies. These include a lack of accountability for the appropriated taxpayer dollars that they already receive each year. The GAO has reported that the Forest Service “has not been able to provide Congress or the public with a clear understanding of what the Forest Service’s 30,000 employees accomplish with the approximately $5 billion the agency receives every year.”

Regula has also been deaf to calls to tear down the firewall between capital infrastructure budgets and recreation budgets so that millions can be made available for maintenance and operations instead of building more visitor centers and paved parking lots that only add to the maintenance needs of the agencies.

“Congress must find effective avenues for appropriated dollars to get to the ground for the paramount needs of operations and maintenance,” said Robert Funkhouser, President of the WSNFC. “Recreation and operations budgets are being pilfered away before the money reaches local managers. Congress should be supplying more oversight, not less, to ensure that there are incentives for land managers to identify and address their maintenance backlogs. Adequate funding should be provided through appropriations, but must go hand in hand with accountability and redirecting priorities.”

Recreation fees have been a contentious issue since Regula became Chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee in 1995. One of his first actions was an across-the-board cut of nearly 30% for the public land management agencies. In place of appropriations he proposed fee-based funding under the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program (Fee Demo). When Fee Demo failed to pass the House floor, he attached it as a rider to the 1996 omnibus spending bill, another must-pass measure. This use of “midnight riders” to implement Fee Demo, to extend it five times, and now to replace it with a permanent program means that the idea has never been subjected to public debate or a floor vote in either the House or Senate.

“This is a despicable abuse of the legislative process,” said Funkhouser. “It’s wrong to hide substantive legislation that includes criminal penalties and new taxes in a spending bill. Congressman Regula knew full well that this bill was unlikely to pass on its own merits. By forcing it through anyway, he has demonstrated a willingness to abuse power that should not be rewarded by being selected for one of the most powerful positions in the House.”

According to the General Accountability Office the land management agencies are riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse. Fee Demo was intensely and increasingly unpopular with the general public. The Coalition claims that Regula has chosen to ignore the problems and force the RAT program on the taxpayers.

“It would be dangerous for the future of our public lands, as well as areas like transportation or education, if someone who repeatedly stoops to such underhanded tactics were to control such a powerful committee. He has shown a historic and continuing willingness to muscle members to his will with threats and intimidation, and to misuse scarce agency resources for purposes unrelated to their mission,” said Funkhouser.

Lewis and Rogers are both challenging Regula for the Appropriations Chairmanship. Both Congressmen have substantial public lands in their districts.

The Coalition is calling on its members and supporting organizations to flood House leadership with faxes and phone calls opposing Regula’s selection for the Appropriations post. Committee selections will be made in party caucuses the first week of January.

The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition will be working with members of the incoming 109th Congress to right this wrong and repeal the Recreational Access Tax.