To Understand the Potential of Congress, Study Recent Public Lands Legislation

Charles Cooper

The recent public lands bill signed into law is an important reminder that in any policy landscape, compromise and bipartisanship is possible.

Public Lands

The combination of a divided Congress, historic levels of partisanship, and a highly anticipated 2020 election on the horizon could be one of the more challenging legislative landscapes in recent history. Congressional approval ratings are hovering around 20% (ironically higher than the 10-year average), highlighting the low expectations the American people have for legislative success in Congress. However, the recent public lands bill signed into law is an important reminder that in any policy landscape, compromise and bipartisanship is possible. It’s a model that should be studied closely and repeated often.

A lands package of this scale hasn’t moved through Congress in twenty-five years and, in fact, it’s been a decade since a package of lands bills were sent to the President. This public lands package is worth analyzing not only because of what is in it, but also because of how it came to pass both chambers with overwhelmingly bipartisan support.

Public lands policy shares the same recent history of partisan divide that tax, healthcare, budget and many other policy sectors have experienced. Not only have Republicans and Democrats had opposing views on a wide spectrum of public lands policy issues over the last decade, but even stakeholder groups within the public lands space have increasingly had different views on key issues – all leading to an impasse on major policy reforms.

It’s a trend that, to say the least, has moved far away from the vision Teddy Roosevelt had for public lands policy over 100 years ago when he helped create 230 million acres of public land with the support of Congress. From the creation of national parks and monuments to funding maintenance backlog (and everything in between), policymakers and stakeholders have had little common ground and even less to point to in terms of legislative success in this space recently.

It’s this history, in part, that makes passage of a public lands package so impressive. It’s even more impressive when understanding all the issues that were unthinkable just a year or two ago by both parties that were part of this recent legislation, including the permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (a program that had expired last year and was in a state of constant policy risk prior to that), and the protection of over 1.5 million acres of land.

The formula for making this happen wasn’t overly complicated and it certainly wasn’t a new approach irregular from decades past. This was essentially the product of basic legislating; Republicans, Democrats, and stakeholders working towards a common legislative goal that included issues – big and small – that helped to bring everyone to the table. There was a firm understanding from all sides throughout the process that everyone would have concerns or even opposition to some provisions included in the bill and that everyone would have strong support for some provisions in the bill, yet the product delivered a legislative goal that all sides believed in.

At the end of the day, the legislation passed the House by a vote of 363-62 and passed the Senate 92-8. It’s almost unbelievable to see that level of bipartisan support when thinking about how similar provisions had consistently failed to move for years.

This sudden shift in the policy landscape around public lands shouldn’t be unique to this bill or this set of issues. The same formula and commitment to bipartisanship and an “everyone wins” approach can, and hopefully will, support other legislative priorities in the coming year.

Policymakers must be willing to appreciate the reality that both parties can have policy and political wins in the same legislation if they are also willing to appreciate the reality that everyone will have to accept some policies they may not traditionally support on their own. It’s the foundation of legislating and hopefully we will see more of it in the coming months. The lands package was a big win for everyone interested in public lands and outdoor recreation, but an even bigger win for the policymaking process.