WASHINGTON, July 9, 2015 – A dispute over the Confederate flag brought a halt to House debate on a funding bill that’s important to Republican efforts to curb a host of environmental regulations.

House GOP leaders pulled the fiscal 2016 Interior-Environment spending bill from the floor on Thursday rather than have a vote on an amendment that would allow the Confederate flag to continue to be flown in cemeteries.

House Speaker John Boehner complained that the Confederate flag had become a “political football.” Democrats were pleased with the outcome, since they didn't like the bill in the first place, because of its attacks on regulations and spending levels that they think are inadequate. "It is shocking that it took a ham-fisted defense of the Confederate battle flag by the most extreme voices in the Republican conference to make Republican leadership realize this Interior bill was a losing proposition," said New York Rep. Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committtee. 

That amendment was one of 15 still to be voted on by the House, including one by Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., aimed at curbing the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to enforce its pollution limits on the Chesapeake Bay.

Another pending amendment, by Rep. Don Newhouse, R-Wash., would have forced the removal of the gray wolf from listing under the Endangered Species Act in Washington, Oregon and Utah.

It’s possible that the House could resume action at some point on the bill, which funds the EPA and the Interior Department, but it could easily be left in limbo. Last summer, the House stopped debate on the fiscal 2015 Agriculture bill, which funds USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, and never resumed action on it.

“There’s some very important issues in the bill,” Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said of the Interior-Environment measure, which includes a policy rider that would prevent the Obama administration from implementing its new rule re-defining the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) that are regulated by the Clean Water Act.

Amendments that had been added during floor debate on the bill included one that would stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from enforcing its listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, an issue in Lucas’ home state.

Pulling the bill off the floor prevents the House from going on record on additional matters, such as Goodlatte’s Chesapeake Bay measure. But regardless of whether the House ever takes final votes on the bill, the WOTUS and ESA issues are certain to remain major priorities for Republican leaders during negotiations with the White House on whatever spending legislation is eventually enacted to fund the government in fiscal 2016.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s version of the Interior-Environment bill includes the WOTUS provision as well as a number of endangered species riders, including one barring enforcement of the listing for the lesser prairie chicken.

Goodlatte’s amendment would prohibit EPA from taking action to enforce pollution standards for a Chesapeake Bay state that wasn’t carrying out the limits. Farm groups led by the American Farm Bureau Federation have been unsuccessful so far in getting the courts to block the EPA’s pollution diet for the bay, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday upheld the TMDL plan.

No doubt the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure, but it is quickly becoming the national treasury with all these costs,” Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., quipped during debate on the amendment.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which supports the TMDL plan, sent a letter to House members urging them to vote against the amendment, saying it threatened to cripple the cleanup effort.

“This shared responsibility and accountability between ALL Bay watershed states has been THE critical element that gives states the confidence that their investments in clean water will yield real results,” the letter said.

The House appears unlikely to even take up the fiscal 2016 Agriculture bill this year, and many in agriculture would likely be happy with that outcome. It would ensure that critics of various farm policy would not have a chance to get votes on amendments to cut such programs as crop insurance and price supports for sugar.
Keeping your eye on potential budget cuts? We’re covering this and lots of other ag and rural policy news. You won’t miss out if you sign up today for a four-week free trial Agri-Pulse subscription.

Asked if he was disappointed that the bill wasn’t likely to reach the floor, Lucas smiled and snapped his fingers in mock disappointment.

Along with the Agriculture measure, the Interior-Environment bill is the most important bill to farmers and ranchers, said Ryan Yates, a specialist in natural resources policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“It affects a number of our farm and ranch families across the country from a variety of different perspectives,” he said.