Don’t disrespect McCain by torpedoing his clean National Defense Authorization Act

Don’t disrespect McCain by torpedoing his clean National Defense Authorization Act
© Greg Nash

Partisan wrangling in Congress is one thing, but trying to hijack the bill that funds our national defense and pays and equips our men and women in uniform is taking partisan politics too far. 

The National Defense Authorization Act fulfills one of Congress’ most basic responsibilities. It’s serious business, and as a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and as a U.S. citizen, I expect our senators and representatives to be responsible and to thoughtfully carry out their duties. 

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Yet, some in Congress have taken advantage of the situation and attached unrelated, controversial amendments to this must-pass legislation. A favorite in recent years has been a measure intended to tie the hands of federal agencies working to save the imperiled greater sage-grouse. Just like last year and the year before that, an amendment approved by the House would bar the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from adding sage-grouse to the endangered species list for 10 years, without any basis in science and defying the intent of the Endangered Species Act.

 

However, this time around there’s a big difference. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Another recession could hit US in 2019, says credit union association chief R-E-S-P-E-C-T: One legacy of Franklin and McCain is up to us MORE (R-Ariz.), who is battling brain cancer, is not present to make sure that the serious business of providing for the common defense doesn’t get mired in political side issues, as he has done for years.

As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, McCain has seen to it that the sage-grouse amendment and other contentious riders didn’t get anywhere. The Senate’s version of the defense bill doesn’t include the rider, but that doesn’t mean the bird and the bill are in the clear. Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Steady Kavanaugh proves to be a tough target for Democrats MORE (R-Okla.), the acting Armed Services Committee chairman in for McCain, has signaled he may support keeping the House’s rider in the final version that will get hashed out soon in the conference committee.

 That would be wrong for so many reasons. A provision on the conservation of greater sage-grouse doesn’t belong in our national defense bill, as McCain has made clear. Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopLand and Water Conservation Fund is good for business Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Looking to the historic leasing program to alleviate the maintenance backlog in national parks MORE (R-Utah), the amendment’s sponsor, says it should be included because military installations in sage-grouse habitat would be negatively affected if the bird is declared endangered and that could affect our military readiness. 

The trouble is, defense officials don’t agree.

In 2016, they told members of Congress that they didn’t anticipate problems complying with the sage-grouse conservation plans and could, if necessary, get exemptions for national security reasons. In short, the military knows what a threat looks like, and it’s not a five-pound bird.

What’s really going on here is a not-so-stealthy attempt to attack the Endangered Species Act — to play Noah on the Ark, deciding which species get to stay and which get tossed overboard — and to derail sage-grouse conservation plans.. A driven minority is intent on undermining plans approved in 2015 to save sage-grouse, whose numbers have been plummeting for years. And the sage-grouse is the canary in the coal mine because sagebrush lands are home to more than 350 plants and animals. As the sage-grouse goes, mule deer, elk and pronghorns are likely to follow. Much of the habitat has been cut up, paved over, converted to crops, drilled, mined and is being degraded by wildfire and cheatgrass. 

Westerners from all walks of life — sportsmen, ranchers, business owners, elected officials, oil and gas industry representatives — got together with state and federal officials and struck a deal to save sage-grouse and the remaining lands that are vital  to local economies through ranching, recreation and hunting. Western governors from both parties supported a hard-won compromise that the Interior Department is now trying to unravel, throwing out common-sense safeguards that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to add the bird to the endangered species list. 

The least Congress can do is prevent the defense bill from being used as an end-run around the deal.

The path is simple: Congress should respect the leadership and wishes of McCain, who is strongly committed to our nation’s defense, our members of the military and our standing as a world leader. Members of Congress must not pander to petty politics. Pass a clean National Defense Authorization Act. 

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Mike Mathis spent 35 years in the Navy and eight years in industry in weapons systems acquisition, and is a conservationist. Mathis also volunteers as an Arizona representative for VoteVets on veteran and environmental issues, including advocacy efforts to save the Sage Grouse.