WASHINGTON — The president would have to adhere to environmental regulations before using the Antiquities Act to designate future national monuments under legislation passed Wednesday by the House on a 222 to 201 vote.
The reform bill would require the president to follow the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and gather public input before acting unilaterally.
Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the bill’s author, said the Antiquities Act has been abused for political purposes and that the president should abide by the same environmental laws as Congress and federal government agencies to make sure the public has a say, and that private property is not scooped up in the process.
“The use of the Antiquities Act has changed over the years and not necessarily for the better,” Bishop said.
“The best way of solving the problem is not necessarily taking that act away or that power away, but simply making sure that the president of the United States gets public input before he actually pulls the trigger,” Bishop said.
Members of the Colorado delegation voting to support the measure were Republican Reps. Mike Coffman, Cory Gardner, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton. Voting no were Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis.
Just minutes into the debate setting rules for how the reform bill would be deliberated, the entire process was hijacked by Polis who led Democrats in an unusual demonstration on the House floor that was intended to push aside the Antiquities Act measure to instead take up immigration reform.
One by one, Polis introduced dozens of Democrats on the floor who demanded the immigration measure that included amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants be brought before the full House through a discharge petition.
“How many of us need to come forward to break the antiquity that is our immigration system?” Polis asked.
Obama praised the hour-long disruption of the antiquities bill that would curb presidential powers, and in a statement said, “Immigration reform is the right thing to do for our economy, our security, and our future.”
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall also applauded the antics in a Tweet, saying he was “proud to stand” with fellow Democrats in the House to unite families and fix a broken immigration system.
The Antiquities Act was originally passed by Congress more than 100 years ago granting presidents the authority to declare the protective status in times of emergencies.
However, critics say it has also been abused and westerners are still stinging from former President Bill Clinton’s controversial declaration in Utah of 1.8 million acres to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
President Barack Obama has used the act nine times during his term to declare national monuments including the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in November that Obama “will not hesitate” to use the act again to sidestep congressional input.
Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington state Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, says an internal memo leaked during Obama’s first term in office exposed plans to potentially lock-up more than 13 million acres of Western land with the stroke of the president’s pen.
“Major land-use decisions such as this should not be made behind closed doors and instead should fully involve the local citizens whose livelihoods will be directly affected,” Hastings said.
“This authority is intended to be used under narrow circumstances and in emergencies to prevent destruction of a precious place, but unfortunately we have seen this power abused by presidents of both parties,” Hastings said.
“It’s been used as a tool to score political points, rather than to protect areas facing imminent threat or harm,” Hastings said.
Although Democrats fervently support the NEPA process for federal agencies and Congress to complete before federal land is developed or preserved, they argued that the president should be exempt from the bureaucratic practice.
Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona said the bill would add layers of duplicative oversight and prevent the president from creating national monuments.
“This is not what our constituents are asking Congress to do,” Grijalva said.
Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, who introduced a bill last summer to establish a national park on the surface of the moon, said the bill should be called the “preventing new parks act.”
However, presidents cannot declare national parks under the Antiquities Act, only Congress has that power.