House Republicans pressed forward Tuesday with a slate of bills meant to tamp down on the president’s authority to preserve lands via the century-old Antiquities Act.
For generations, presidents of both parties have used the statute to set aside millions of acres as protected national monuments. But a group of GOP lawmakers contends that the law has been wrongfully used to lock up vast swaths of land and resources through executive fiat, with little public or congressional input.
President Obama, in particular, has been aggressive in his use of the statue, having designated nine new monuments in just over four years in office. By comparison, former President George W. Bush created six during the course of two terms.
“Both Democrat(ic) and Republican administrations have abused the Antiquities Act,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) charged during a hearing of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.
Seeking to limit presidential authority to circumvent Congress, a host of Republican lawmakers from states across the West called for new prohibitions.
The panel took up consideration of eight bills designed to limit the president’s Antiquity Act powers. Five would bar any new monuments — or the expansion of current ones — in Nevada, Utah, Montana, Idaho and New Mexico.
One of the bills would require congressional approval for national monuments designated by the president. Another would require state approval. The last would limit presidential designations to one per state in a four-year term, and allow monuments to expire after three years unless approved by Congress.
Interior Department officials declined to appear at the hearing, saying they had not enough time to review all eight of the bills. Still the agency submitted written testimony in opposition to the bills that had been reviewed, arguing that the legislation would undermine vital executive authority.
The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, echoed the administration’s argument, questioning his Republican colleagues as to why they had suddenly taken exception to a practice that has been employed in bipartisan fashion for decades.
“All the sudden it has become mysterious and controversial to make sure that our heritage is not bulldozed away,” Grijava said. “Now under President Obama it’s become the worst law since prohibition.”
Grijalva said it was waste of time to consider legislation that would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate and would be unlikely to receive the president’s signature.
But Republicans maintained that their effort is not partisan.
“Bad policy is bad policy, whether enacted by a Republican or a Democrat,” said Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), author of the Idaho bill. He likened the use of the Antiquities Act to the president’s power to pardon criminals, saying nether sit well with the American public.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) penned the legislation that would amend the act to require congressional approval for new monuments. He, along with other lawmakers and witnesses, pointed to former President Clinton’s creation of the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, which they say was done without feedback from the public or members of Congress.
“More public debate — that’s all we’re asking for,” Chaffetz said.
James Jones, a Carbon County, Utah, commissioner, called Clinton’s action in Utah “cowardly” and testified that it deprived the state of billions of dollars in lost mineral lease royalties.
“It’s an unreasonable thing to lock up land in someone else’s backyard,” he told the panel.
Bishop, referring to the Grand Staircase monument, said Clinton “screwed” the state of Utah.
Yet proponents of the Antiquities Act note that Congress has left presidents little choice but to act unilaterally to preserve treasured land. The last Congress was the first since 1966 that did not designate a single acre of land as protected wilderness, and the first since World War II that did not set aside any new national park or monument land.
All but three presidents — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — have used the statute to designate monuments since the law was enacted, according to The Wilderness Society.
Tuesday's hearing came as conservationists from around the country flew in to Washington to voice their support for monuments and the Antiquities Act.
The lone witness at the hearing who was approved by the panel to testify in opposition to the bills was Mayor Molly Joseph Ward of Hampton, Va. Ward described a strenuous public outreach program prior to Obama’s 2011 designation of Fort Monroe as a national monument, and said the action has been a boon for the city’s economy.
“We have seen first-hand the enormous benefit the Antiquities Act can have on the cultural and economic health of a community.
This story was updated at 3:57 p.m.