Well, time might still be running out to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) this Congress, but the bill moved one step closer to the President’s desk on Tuesday afternoon.
After several hours of debate, the House passed a massive wildlife funding bill, which would help states, Tribes, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) conserve species of greatest conservation need. States and Tribes have identified these species, and have already laid out conservation actions to help them in wildlife action plans, but have never had enough money to fully fund these projects.
“Right now, the United States is facing an unprecedented biodiversity crisis,” said Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI), lead House sponsor of RAWA. “Without a significant change in the way we finance conservation, more of the animals and wildlife we hold dear to our heart will become endangered. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is landmark legislation that takes long-overdue action to address this crisis by using innovative, on-the-ground collaboration that will protect our nation’s environmental heritage.”
The bill is broadly supported by the conservation community, including the American Wildlife Conservation Partners, and has been a priority for decades. Species-specific groups especially see the need for capacity-building for wildlife habitat improvements across the board.
“Providing state and tribal agencies with much-needed funding and authority to focus on at-risk species in their own way allows them to balance their management activities with multiple priorities,” said Becky Humphries, co-CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation. “With a steady decline in hunting participation over the past few decades, the traditional funding source for conservation isn’t adequate to meet the current need. This bill would help bring conservation funding into the 21st century.”
Joel Pederson, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation, also knows a thing or two about the importance of increasing conservation dollars.
“Securing increased funding for state fish and wildlife conservation efforts has been a top priority for the conservation community for decades, and the Mule Deer Foundation is proud to be part of the coalition of thousands of organizations supporting the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act,” Pedersen said. “Today’s vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to pass RAWA is a critical step toward finally enacting dedicated funding to help proactively address the conservation needs of our nation’s wildlife species. We know that the increased investment in wildlife conservation will help to ensure that declining species are addressed well before they need to be listed as threatened or endangered.”
However, RAWA got caught in some headwinds Tuesday and only cleared the House by a vote of 231-190.
As a hunter, angler, trapper, or conservationist, the passage of this bill out of one chamber of Congress is something to celebrate. It will revolutionize this country’s ability to conserve wildlife. However, it’s also important to understand what happened and why.
While RAWA is blissfully bipartisan in concept, it’s hard to ignore that the final passage of the bill was fairly divided. Only 16 Republicans voted for the bill and two Democrats voted against it. And there’s a reason for that.
The bill that the House of Representatives passed yesterday will spend a little more than $14 billion in the next decade without a tangible source of funds. If this bill becomes a law as it is currently written, this funding will not be subject to the annual appropriations process and will continue in perpetuity, unless or until Congress takes action to repeal it. The Congressional Budget Office, which is responsible for keeping track of government spending, tells us that this spending will show up as red on the federal balance sheets.
In short, the House of Representatives voted to approve a really good investment in wildlife, but they voted to pay for it with debt rather than identify a revenue stream. Sixteen Republicans were okay with that, but 188 were not (or were opposed to the bill for another reason). The notable Democratic opposition to this bill came from the lead House appropriator, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who likely voted against RAWA because it includes mandatory spending, removing power (and money) from the jurisdiction of the appropriations committee.
It’s important to understand that Congress votes to fund things without a “pay-for” all the time, under the leadership of both parties. However, with the midterms coming up and record inflation rates, all funding bills are under more scrutiny.
The Senate can still change the bill in any number of ways, and find a way to pay for this spending, but that’s what the House approved on Tuesday.
There was a lot of voting on Tuesday. For those who don’t keep C-SPAN running in their office or on the radio in the truck, it probably left you scratching your head and wondering how anybody keeps track of what was going on. In the House, our Representatives must vote on whether they’re going to vote on something. It’s complicated, at least a little silly, very political, and even more buried in tradition.
Formally, the process of a House floor vote starts with a rule—a defined set of procedures for how much debate may be had about the bill, which amendments may be voted on, and what the text of the legislation will read. All of this is decided by the powerful House Rules Committee.
Last week, the Rules Committee posted the bill and made a call for amendments, as they typically do at the beginning of each week. But rather than take up the version of RAWA that was passed by the House Natural Resources Committee, the Rules Committee made a politically savvy move and modified the bill to align with the version of RAWA that was passed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. They were thinking ahead to the next hurdle facing this bill—a vote in the Senate—and wanted to bring the legislation in line with what that chamber has been debating. However, this change royally frustrated House Republicans who oppose the nearly $200 million-per-year Endangered Species Recovery and Habitat Conservation Legacy Fund that the Senate bill would create for the FWS.
The Rules Committee also “made in order” several amendments that were all added to the bill on the floor of the House, including some to make non-profit entities eligible for some of the funding, assuring that administrative costs wouldn’t exceed certain thresholds, and to allow some of this money to be spent on invasive species. Many of these amendments made the bill better public policy, but none of them solved the spending issues at the center of this debate.
Records of these votes can be found on the House Clerk’s website.
Now that RAWA has been passed in the House, it will go to the Senate where one of three things could happen to keep RAWA moving. The Senate may take up and pass the House-passed version of the bill; the Senate may modify the bill and send it back to the House; or, the Senate could pass their own version of the bill and convene a conference committee of members of both chambers.
There is still time to find a way to pay for this bill. However, the ball is in the Senate’s court now.
Some folks in the government affairs community like to say that “nearly anything can happen under the rules of the U.S. Senate, but it usually doesn’t.” Plenty of experts are confident that something will happen with RAWA by the end of the Congress, but it’s tough to say with certainty what that will be.
“The bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is on the verge of becoming law,” said Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation in a press release. “We urge the Senate to build upon the leadership of Senators Martin Heinrich, Roy Blunt, Thom Tillis, and Tom Carper and take up this historic conservation bill as soon as possible. Inaction is the ally of extinction—and now it’s time to act.”
If you’d like to weigh in, use this handy list to call your two Senators and tell them that you support the swift passage of a fully funded Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.