Leaders in Congress promised that September would mark the point when they began to move the hunters’ agenda. They kept their promise, and the action may continue into October as well.
In the first week after the congressional August recess, the Federal Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources committee held a hearing on H.R. 3668 – the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) Act. The bill was long awaited, originally intended to be introduced in June and intended as a companion bill to the Senate’s comprehensive pro-hunting Sportsmen’s Act. The SHARE Act includes multiple provisions that improve access and opportunities for hunting and fishing on federal lands. It was introduced by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) with original cosponsors Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) and it differed from the Senate bill primarily in that Rep. Duncan and his colleagues decided to include a number of Second Amendment related issues as well.
Republican members of the committee invited witnesses including SCI’s own Anna Seidman. SCI was honored to be invited as one of only three witnesses supporting the bill. The minority members of the committee invited a gun control lobbyist as their sole witness, reflecting their decision to focus their opposition on the firearm related provisions of the bill. They also packed the hearing room with red-shirted gun control activists, ensuring that the media would focus on the debate over the gun-related issues of the legislation.
Anna’s testimony was centered on the hunting related provisions of the bill. She explained the bill section that would finally end litigation and delist wolves in the Western Great Lakes region from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). She covered the measure that would mandate the use of qualified volunteers in managing excess wildlife populations on federal lands. She noted the provision that would finally allow the importation of 40 polar bears that were legally hunted in Canada but have been marooned in cold storage since 2008 when the bears were listed as threatened under the ESA. And finally, she noted bill language that would remedy the quirks of the law that impede the government from effectively fighting back against nuisance litigation filed by anti-hunting groups.
Other witnesses focused on the gun related measures in the bill, all common-sense reforms to benefit the American hunter and gun owner. The most notable of the major provisions is the latest version of the Hearing Protection Act, which would remove firearm suppressors from the onerous paperwork and red tape of the National Firearms Act, and simply treat them the same as firearms sold at retail – requiring only an instant background check. Another would clarify the intent of the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act to protect hunters and gun owners from prosecution when they travel through states that have restrictive gun control schemes. And the last major change would eliminate the “sporting purposes” test used to evaluate firearms submitted for importation into the United States. That arbitrary standard had been grossly manipulated by anti-gun administrations in recent years to preclude the importation of entire classes of firearms, continually moving the goal post of what type of guns were allowed to reach the U.S. market. The end result was that the American consumer market was closed off to entire classes of imported firearms, but consumers were able to buy precisely the same guns as long as they were domestically manufactured. It’s quite silly, really.
That reality didn’t keep the Democrats from pretending that passage of these measures would spark a hellish criminal dystopia on the streets of America. Several Democrats repeated the same talking points over and over, indicating that they were all reading from the same prepared script. One member claimed that Anna said something she clearly did not, while others harped on polar bear issues that had no basis in reality. Still others used their question time to deliver prepared soliloquys about the bill, while the rest directed questions about the use of suppressors by hunters to the gun control lobbyist who admitted he had no experience or expertise on the issue. And on the following day, when the full House Natural Resources Committee voted on the bill, the Democrats of course tried to remove all the firearms-related sections of the bill entirely. One particularly grandstanding Democrat member, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), offered an amendment to remove the provision that would delist recovered gray wolves. He apparently relied upon his extensive expertise in wolf management coming from his life experience as a car dealer selling Volvos in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.
Fortunately, all of the efforts to gut and derail the bill were defeated. Hunters owe a debt of gratitude to Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) and full Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) for their deft handling of the bill, and successfully moving it out of committee. The next step is debate on the House floor, which could come before the end of September. Then further action will depend on prompting the Senate to take action on their companion pieces of legislation.
The House was not the only governmental body hard at work last week on behalf of hunters. Not waiting for the outcome of legislative debate, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued Secretarial Order 3356, a landmark document to support and expand hunting and fishing, enhance conservation stewardship, improve wildlife management and increase outdoor recreation opportunities for all Americans. The order is the latest in the Secretary’s slate of regulatory actions for the restoration of the American sportsmen’s conservation ethic originally established by President Theodore Roosevelt. Secretary Zinke has established a remarkable pace in reversing the Obama administration’s “lockup and lockout” mentality toward federal lands, and his policies are going further to advance his conservation agenda than any of his recent predecessors. He also recently called for qualified volunteers to assist the National Park Service in managing an overpopulation of bison in Grand Canyon National Park, strengthening a precedent that SCI helped established but that the previous administration strenuously avoided. Through his broad range of actions, taken at a pace that is dizzying for the federal bureaucracy, Secretary Zinke is forcefully demonstrating that he has no intention of being “waited out” by career bureaucrats who are well versed in foot dragging to stall the agenda of political appointees with whom they secretly disagree. He also has no intention of waiting for Republicans in Congress to formally issue him a mandate, since the pace of congressional action has been maddeningly slow.
In that, he is joined by his boss at the White House. President Donald Trump has gleefully upset the partisan applecart with his recent legislative agreements brokered solely with Democratic leaders “Chuck and Nancy.” His sudden pivot to negotiating with Democrats has appalled Republicans in Congress, and startled the pundit class into endless bouts of head-scratching. But most political reporters are simply too young to remember the strategic “triangulation” of Bill Clinton. In the early 1990s, he too distanced himself from his fellow Democrats in Congress, in order to portray himself as a centrist and pursue an agenda that did not hew to rigid party orthodoxy. Historians disagree about the success of his strategy, but the objective scorecard is clear — congressional Democrats were figuratively slaughtered in the 1994 elections, including the defeat of House Speaker Tom Foley. Clinton, by contrast, cruised to an easy re-election win in 1996.
Is history playing itself out again? It’s too soon to tell, but it’s no surprise that on the heels of Trump’s dalliance with Democratic leaders, Senate Republicans are suddenly reviving their abandoned bid to repeal and replace Obamacare. In hindsight, it may well be that the president has actually done a favor for Capitol Hill Republicans by giving them a glimpse of how the world would work if they lost their congressional majorities in the 2018 election. Now they are suddenly filled with a zeal to actually execute on the promises they have made for several years. The moment should also remind them that hunters and gun owners constitute a large segment of their electoral base. Your SCI Washington team has a seat at the table, and will be pressing congressional leaders to keep up the forward momentum to carry the pro-hunting agenda over the finish line and enact it into law.--Patrick O'Malley