Reading through a summary of the Senate disaster relief bill that recently passed reinforced my long-held notion that there is a serious problem with the way Congress cobbles legislation together, a problem superior to and predating the current partisanship.
That notion got another buttressing during a trip my wife, Louann, and I took to Washington DC a couple of weeks ago. We had been asked to participate in the American Forest Foundation’s “Hill Day” as landowner representatives from Florida. That “ask” resulted from us being selected as Florida’s Land Stewards for 2019 rather than for some special talent we have for lobbying or for our political connections, which are basically nonexistent.
We’d never before been to DC, never really wanted to go, and surely never desired to wander the halls and lobby. We were ill prepared for the experience. I didn’t even own a coat and tie.
Along with three other landowners from Florida, we were scheduled to visit the offices of our senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, and five of our representatives (Al Lawson, Ted Yoho, Neal Dunn, Daniel Webster, and John Rutherford). The other three landowners were heavily affected by Hurricane Michael. Two had the eye pass directly over their farm, so disaster relief for Michael was front and center during the few minutes we were allowed in each office.
Hurricanes battering Florida’s silviculture industry is obviously nothing new. Both Matthew and Irma rendered significant damage to standing timber and infrastructure on our farm. It took us nearly a year to repair culverts, roads, and low water crossings swamped by Irma in 2017.
Our timber losses from the two storms, which amounted to 10-12 percent in some of the more mature and thinned stands, were an unrecoverable loss. And the standing water left us with saturated ground that did not dry for months. This compounded the injury by making site prep and planting impossible, causing the loss of a growing season in stands that needed replanting.
As it cut its way through the Panhandle, Michael rendered not simple damage but devastation. Words cannot capture properly the changes that occurred in just a few hours along the core path from the Gulf up into Georgia.
The best I can do is to ask you to imagine the 2 million acres of timber in the primary zone as the grass in your front yard. Then imagine cutting that grass with a weed-eater, leaving everything just strewn about. But trees are not grass, nor grass clippings once on the ground. You can’t sweep or rake them right up and deposit them at the curb.
Also worth considering is that, unlike the grass which will need cutting again next week, those trees, many 20-80 years old and some old-growth forest, well, it’ll be the grandchildren of those there now who get to see trees like that again. For a real view, both visual and in dollars and cents, the Florida Forest Service has an assessment available online here.
Jim Karels, the director of the Florida Forest Service, was with us in Washington fleshing out the case for how bad it was. He also made clear some of the further consequences that could flow from damaged and down timber. This includes disease and insects, which may move from the hardest-hit areas into the less damaged, causing a second round of devastation. Then there will be the wildfires, as all that formerly standing timber has now become fuel on the ground.
One example of the compounding of the wildfire risk is here. We are now into the peak of Florida’s wildfire season.
These facts were not completely new to our legislators and their all-important staff as we went from office to office. In every instance you could see the understanding, hear an expressed willingness to support the disaster relief legislation when it came to a vote, and note their frustration at it not having happened yet. The understanding and expressed willingness to help was bipartisan, which was very encouraging.
What was not encouraging was that in every office some mention was made of “leadership,” both Democrat and Republican, and of “other issues” as the hold-up. That “hold-up” had been 200 days since Michael as we trooped from office to office. As I write this, it’s stretched more than another 30 days. What took so long?
More important is the question of why the bill contains what it does? It’s worth reading the Senate bill summary to get a feel for how tentatively, tangentially, and creatively some of what’s in it is tied together. (The bill itself will turn your brain inside out! )
Most of us can well see that dealing with wildfires in the West has little to do with and could easily have been addressed separate from typhoons in the Pacific, the Federal Flood Insurance Program, and Hurricane Michael. Then there is something that is not in the bill, but which could have been: funding for “The Wall.” While I agree with the idea of a wall, I see just as clearly that it should not be in there any more than some of what is in there.
The shabby statecraft being employed here is nothing new. The practice of tacking on amendments that are unrelated or only tangentially related to a bill with bipartisan support as a way to get a partisan measure passed is standard practice.
Our leaders are not such geniuses that they are the first to come up with the idea of attaching unrelated items onto a must-pass bill to get items with limited support approved. Nor are they so marvelously sneaky as to have devised a new means of passing legislation that allows them to choose which unrelated part of a bill they harp on as being for or against, to their own political gain, depending on the constituency they are pandering to. If there are enough parts, especially weakly related or unrelated to a piece of legislation, something in there will give cover when a vote is defended to a constituent.
This not only slows down many simple and necessary measures, but also leads to passing bits and pieces of legislation that would not have sufficient support if addressed individually. That this bloats the Federal Register and the national debt is a good bet also. Congress could address this structural and process problem if it wanted to, as the chambers have the power to set their own procedural rules.
If we consider history and politics and statecraft and the crafting of law as sorts of science, and if we accept that a primary use of science is to allow us to improve, then we are bound to consider open-mindedly the sanity and propriety of having Congress operate in this way. While there is no guarantee it would improve things, and surely there would be great effort expended in circumventing it should it become law, it seems well past time for this country to amend the Constitution to make Congress craft single-issue legislation.
It could well be that, in the path of Hurricane Michael, in the West where wildfires need addressing, and in other places left waiting as Congress plays politics with our lives, some support for this idea may exist.