Obama to Sign Lands Bill Before 5 Days of Comment

Daily News Article   —   Posted on March 30, 2009

(by Stephen Dinan, WashingtonTimes.com) – President Obama on Monday will sign the omnibus land conservation bill – yet again breaking his vow to allow five days for public comment before he affixes his signature to legislation.

The bill passed the House on Wednesday, but the White House didn’t post the measure for comments until Friday, leaving just two weekend days and parts of Friday and Monday for the public to register comments – short of the president’s five-day pledge. The bill was posted for only several hours before the White House announced that Mr. Obama would sign it, indicating the president had made up his mind well before many comments could have been submitted.

The White House said issues are still being worked out with the five-day policy and that the president’s scheduled departure Tuesday to London for a meeting with world leaders makes it necessary to short-circuit things this time.

“In most cases, we have posted legislation with five days’ notice. We are working to resolve a few issues with the congressional calendar, and in this instance, in light of the president’s international trip, the bill will be signed before departure,” said spokesman Ben LaBolt, who vowed that the administration intends to live up to the policy.

“We will continue to post legislation on our Web site for comment as it moves through Congress, and plan to have the full policy implemented in the coming weeks,” he said.

The land bill has taken a convoluted path to the president’s desk, and Republican critics said Mr. Obama’s failure to wait is simply the latest procedurally dubious step in a Democratic effort to jam through a controversial bill.

“If there was ever a bill in need of more input and comment, it’s this one – but it didn’t get that in Congress and it doesn’t appear the administration will allow time for that either. That’s too bad, because there is a better way,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican.

“The history of this bill in the House has been one of strained procedure, stifled debate, constitutional flaws, inclusion of measures without merit, and amendments to apparently non-amendable bills,” he said. “The people and their representatives have been shut out, and we have a poor end product because of it – one that will trample rights, hurt the management of our lands and hinder the economy and energy independence.”

During the campaign, Mr. Obama pledged that when there’s “a bill that ends up on my desk as president, you, the public, will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it.”

On his campaign Web site, he vowed that would mean he “will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.”

Of the nine bills Mr. Obama has signed so far in his term, he has signed six of them less than five days after Congress sent them to him. Of the other three, only on one did he wait more than five days from the time the bill was officially presented to him, according to Thomas, the Web site of the Library of Congress that tracks legislation.

Some of those bills were emergency legislation, such as the stimulus-spending bill and a continuing resolution to keep the government funded while Congress hashed out 2009 spending. The administration said that for other bills, it sometimes posts a link to the measure and allows comments even before it is officially presented to the White House, so the tally can be misleading.

The lands bill combines dozens of parks, wilderness and conservation projects, some of which had passed individually but others that hadn’t received scrutiny, into a single bill.

Republicans on Capitol Hill blocked the legislation for months as they tried to remove parts they said were wasteful or counterproductive, including items such as new national parks that the National Park Service says it doesn’t even want.

Democrats were afraid of facing an open debate in the House and used parliamentary tactics, including combining the bill with another measure, to deny Republicans the ability to offer amendments on the House floor.

The bill did pass overwhelmingly, with bipartisan support, by a 285-140 vote in the House and a 77-20 vote in the Senate.

Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman for Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, said Democrats “jammed this $10 billion, 1,200-page bill” through Congress and that Mr. Obama is doing the same at the White House.

“It appears that the administration’s ‘sunset before signing’ pledge should be renamed ‘sign before sundown.’ This is another unfortunate example of Democrats’ inability to live up to their promises of a more open and transparent government,” she said.

Mr. Obama’s pledge to have bills available for comment does put him apart from other presidents, but voters appear ready to hold him to the higher standard he set. On Thursday, when Mr. Obama hosted a virtual town hall, one of the submitted questions that Mr. Obama didn’t get to answer was why he wasn’t following through on his five-day rule.

Asked at the daily White House briefing about the pledge later that day, press secretary Robert Gibbs said he thought that all except for the stimulus bill had met the five-day comment period.

“I think, in fact, on at least a couple of occasions we’ve not signed bills when we normally planned so that some of them could be reviewed,” he said.

Asked by ABC’s Jake Tapper whether the five-day rule was “a commitment the president intends to uphold from now on,” Mr. Gibbs was unequivocal: “Yes, sir.”

Copyright 2009 News World Communications, Inc.  Reprinted with permission of the Washington Times.  For educational purposes only.  This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization.  Visit the website at www.washingtontimes.com.

Questions

1. During his campaign, what did Barack Obama pledge to do before signing a bill into a law?

2. a) How many bills has President Obama signed into law in his first two months in office?
b) For how many of the bills did the President keep his pledge?

3. Regarding the bills that the president has signed into law, the reporter states “Some of the bills were emergency legislation, such as the stimulus-spending bill…” Do you think that there is any legislation that is such an emergency that it can’t wait five days for public comments? Do you think that the stimulus-spending bill was? Explain your answer.

4. a) What bill will President Obama sign into law today, again without allowing five days for public comment?
b) Why did Republican lawmakers block the legislation for months?

5. Re-read paragraph 2. Should the five days be weekdays? Explain your answer.

6. a) How did White House press secretary Robert Gibbs respond to a question about President Obama’s pledge on signing bills into law?
b) What do you think of Mr. Gibbs’ response?

7. Read an explanation of why most Republicans oppose the bill at rsc.tomprice.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=110937, as well as the points to consider in “Background” below.
a) Should President Obama have allowed 5 full days of for public comment on this bill?
b) Do you think that President Obama purposely chose to have it posted for less than 5 days, and over a weekend as well? Explain your answer.
c) President Obama campaigned on a platform of change. His pledge to allow public comment on legislation did set him apart from other presidents. Should voters hold him to these pledges that he made? Explain your answers.


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Background

Opponents of this bill have made the following argument: (from forum.freestateproject.org/index.php?topic=17234.msg207131)
This bill would give control of about 26 million acres of forest land along the northern parts of the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and others to be designated as National Park, wilderness, or heritage areas. According to the Bureau of Land Management, it would also remove about 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 300 million barrels of oil from potential production in Wyoming. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) one of the most outspoken opponents of the bill, pointed out that this bill would remove almost as much energy from potential future production as is currently produced in our two most productive energy states of Alaska and Texas.

In order to put the questions raised by this bill into proper perspective, one should consider the following scenarios:

  • Suppose a man had a small tract of land in northern Vermont with 10 acres of timber and 10 acres of pasture fields. His family has lived on this land for generations. His father taught him to hunt and fish there and then left it to him to do the same with his children. One day a letter from the federal government arrives that tells him his land is now part of a new National Park system. Even if he is allowed to continue living on it he can’t harvest its timber or use it in the other ways he might desire to use it. The letter tells him that the government’s action does not trigger the takings provision of the Fifth Amendment because he still owns it and therefore is not entitled to just compensation. Despite the fact that he may not use it as he wishes, he must continue to pay taxes on it.

  • Suppose a land owner in Wyoming has ten thousand acres of ranch land and under that land is one million feet of natural gas and a lot of oil. How is he to get proper use of that land’s resources after the federal government sets it aside under the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009?

  • Suppose a man owns a small amount of land in Maine and the federal government “discovers” some tiny species of animal that fits under the Endangered Species Act so he is prohibited from any use of his land.

These scenarios could all be argued to be takings, only in a regulatory sense, and therefore the owner is not entitled to just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. Even if compensation is offered, the value is far lower than actual appraised value because the land cannot be used.

The owner could always raise a court challenge to these regulatory takings if he had a few hundred thousand dollars for legal fees. Perhaps he would lose anyway as did the plaintiffs in Kelo v. City of New London in which the United States Supreme Court upheld the taking of private property for private use. Kelo was an owner of a small business and his property was taken under eminent domain and given to a private developer.

The U.S. Chamer of Commerce opposes the bill for reasons stated in a letter to the Senate found at uschamber.com/issues/letters/2008/081030_omnibus_public_land_mgmt.htm, excerpted below:

Specifically, the 1,000-page omnibus bill would withdraw more than 3 million acres of land from energy development and put it under federal control. For example, it withdraws 1.2 million acres of land in Wyoming from mineral leasing and energy exploration, which includes approximately 331 million barrels of recoverable oil and 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In addition, another 1.93 million U.S. acres would be designated as “wilderness areas,” thereby preventing all major recreation on them and prohibiting any new oil and gas leasing.

The federal government already controls upward of 650 million acres of land (almost 1/3 of the entire United States), many of which are suffering from chronic maintenance backlogs. The National Park Service alone estimates the maintenance backlog of projects on the federal lands it manages at $9 billion. Nevertheless, this bill would shift millions of additional acres to federal control, cost taxpayers billions of dollars, and further erode private property ownership rights.

Resources

For details on why conservatives opposed the passage into law of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, go to the Republican Study Committee website at rsc.tomprice.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=110937.

Read the text of the bill – the “Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009”, and how your representatives voted, at govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-146.