Congress Is Preparing to Give Away Public Land
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Congress Is Preparing to Give Away Public Land

A huge corporate freebie, just like in Russia


Congress is preparing to give away millions of acres of public land worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The first move, transferring property owned by all Americans to individual states, was quietly adopted by the House in early January as part of a routine internal rules change.

The end game? Vast expanses of land passed for free to ranching or mining companies—or even corporate logos splattered across national landmarks such as Yosemite park or Devil’s Tower.

The House move is not yet a done deal. The Senate has to act, as will the White House.

Congress moved quietly in January to give away public land to benefit private industry.

The move is the first step in what may become the wholesale transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of public property to private hands with little or no payment.  It also smacks of how Russia created its network of billionaire oligarchs while making that country poorer by turning commonwealth property into private property without full compensation. (See this update from The Guardian.)

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Public land and buildings being given away are to be valued at zero for federal budget purposes under a Republican-sponsored resolution adopted on Jan. 6.

You might expect something so potentially costly to taxpayers would be the subject of robust public hearings and debate. Nope.

This initial step to giving away valuable federal real estate was buried on Page 35 of amendments to the House Rules, an arcane internal procedure that rarely makes news but can be used to make mischief.

The new rules, with emphasis added, provide that, “…requiring or authorizing a conveyance of Federal land to a State, local government, or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays.”

That language, approved on a party-line vote of 234-to-172, means that the value of the real estate and any revenue it generates will be ignored for federal budget purposes. Nothing in the new rule prevents the gift of land from being re-gifted to individuals or companies.

The issue the new House rule raises is not the lease, sale or transfer of federal lands. Our government makes real estate deals all the time. The issues are about financial integrity, fairness to current and future generations of Americans and crony capitalism.

The new rule raises at least three significant issues for taxpayers.

One is the threat posed to taxpayers that their property, held in trust by our federal government, will be given away or sold without regard to the value of the asset or the income it generates. If such land ends up in private hands the result is a form of welfare. The beneficiaries may well be those who need subsidies least – the wealthy individuals and corporations comprising the political donor class.

Second, federal ownership of land helps protect the environment by preventing destructive uses, which in turn lowers costs and makes the economy more efficient.

ACTION BOX / What You Can Do About It

“Any attempt to privatize public lands is going to engender broad opposition across the political spectrum,” says the Sierra Club’s John Hickey. “There will be a firestorm against it if Trump and his honchos try to move forward.”

Maybe so, but only if people know what is up and such giveaways are not buried in arcane legislation that obscures such actions until it’s too late.

Tell your representatives and senators what you think. Phone or write Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee at (202) 225-2761; 1324 Longworth House Office Building / Washington, D.C. 20515. Don’t just send an email. They ignore emails.

Third, the transfer of government property at less than full value is how the Russian oligarchs came to be billionaires. The oligarchs acquired the wealth of Russia — land, oil, minerals timber, real estate, factories, infrastructure — for a fraction of the real value.

To give away federal land Congress would have to pass additional legislation. But removing such matters from the budget debate makes such gifts easier to do and hides the true costs.

The language in the new rule came from Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, a Republican and the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Bishop has long complained that too much land in his district is owned by the federal government.

Lee Lonsberry, a spokesman for Bishop, said the language was an “effort to remove a bureaucratic rule” that blocks economic development and that “this is a conveyance from one government to another.”

Once federal land is transferred gratis to a state or local government or a Native American organization it could be re-gifted or sold.

The ranking Democratic member on the House Natural Resources Committee, Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, has called the rule change outrageous and absurd.

January 31, 2017