The House approved legislation on Wednesday that would create new hurdles to presidential designations of national monuments, a bill that Republican supporters say is needed because presidents of both parties are abusing their power to select these sites.
Members passed H.R. 1459, the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act, in a 222-201 vote. Democrats cast the bill as an anti-environmental measure, and only three Democrats supported it — ten Republicans opposed it.
The textbook example cited by Republicans is the 1996 decision by President Clinton to designate nearly two million acres of land in Utah as a national monument. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said Clinton's decision to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was made without any advance notice, and was announced by Clinton during a pre-election tour of the west.
"And the President didn't even have the courage to step into my state when he created this monument," Stewart said of Clinton. "He stood on the Arizona border and said, 'I create a national monument over there.' "
The legislation would add new requirements under the Antiquities Act to require presidential designations to undergo reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It would also limit presidential designations to one per state in a four-year term.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said the 1906 law was originally intended to allow the government to quickly protect sensitive environmental land. But he said it needs updating to take into account state-wide interests.
"The majority of the designations Teddy Roosevelt made were in territories that were not states," Bishop said. "Things have changed since that time, unfortunately, this law hasn't."
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) argued that the president's power under the Antiquities Act is no longer about saving at-risk land, and is instead being used to "score political points."
Hastings also said Democrats should be supporting efforts to require NEPA reviews of any project, including the designation of national monuments.
"If my Democrat colleagues believe that the NEPA is a worthwhile law that works, and that NEPA is important, why should they oppose making sure that presidential designations should not go through the same process?" he asked.
Nonetheless, Democrats opposed the bill by saying the designation of national monument land is an act of environmental stewardship, one that would only be slowed by requiring NEPA reviews.
"Congress should not be diluting this popular tool, or making it more difficult for future presidents to set land aside and honor our shared history," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
Grijalva and other Democrats also argued that the President needs the ability to designate national monuments because the Republican House is not passing many bills to protect the land. Congressional action is another way to create these monuments, but Democrats said GOP leader have shown little interest in taking any action in this area.
"There's going to be no protection passing this House, easily or freely, with this majority in charge," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). "This Republican majority is genuinely, openly hostile to conservation designations."
The Obama administration did not issue a statement outlining its view of the bill before the vote. However, Democratic opposition appears to make it unlikely that the Senate will consider it.
Before final passage, the House passed a manager's amendment clarifying that monument designations of 5,000 acres or less could still be made by the President temporarily to protect sensitive land, after which a formal NEPA process would have to be followed within three years. This passed in a voice vote.
The House considered two other Democratic amendments, from:
— Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), requiring feasibility studies to include an assessment of the monument's benefits, including jobs and tourism. Passed in voice vote.
— Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), preserving the ability of the President to declare land as a monument for the protection or conservation of historic or cultural resources related to American military history. Failed 197-223.