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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

SPORTSMEN'S ACT OF 2012 STALLS - "PROGESSIVE" PLAN MEETS REPUBLICAN ANTI-TAX BACKLASH

“Ten bucks. That’s what killed the progressive, popular, good-government Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 yesterday. Ten bucks, or the increase of the cost of a federal duck stamp from $15 to $25.”

And so it is, the lead sentence from Ben Lamb’s Outdoor Life piece on November 28th regarding the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012, and how it was killed in the Senate over a $10 fee increase.

In other words, the democrat-led Sportsmen’s Act of 2012, complete with a 66% tax increase on the price of a federal duck stamp (a tax increased supported and endorsed by the national group Ducks Unlimited), stalled because republicans agreed that a ‘yes’ vote to increase taxes would be in clear violation of section 302(f) the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.

Slice it and dice any way you want, but the Senate is prohibited by law from considering legislation that would cause a committee's allocation of either budget authority or outlays to be exceeded. Additionally, Senate Budget Committee ranking member Rep. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) pointed out that the Sportsmen's Act would require $14 million in new federal spending, and thus, Sessions says, would violate the spending levels set in the Budget Control Act (BCA). "The BCA limited spending in various accounts as part of an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, the debt limit," Sessions recently told The Hill.

Sen. Sessions acknowledged that a $14 million override is small compared to the sums Congress usually spends, but he said Congress needs to be more principled if it is going to reduce the budget deficit, which is why he stood out as one of the sole republicans earlier in the month to come out in opposition to this piece of legislation, most of which he supports in principle.

"We cannot breach those levels. It is a sick pattern and makes a mockery of law and responsible governing," Sessions told The Hill.

According to Lamb at Outdoor Life however, Sen. Sessions has a more sinister reasoning behind his opposition of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012. “The sad fact is that most Republicans are still smarting over the re-election of the bill’s sponsor, Montana Sen. Jon Tester,” he wrote in his opinion, adding “That’s the real reason they killed the bill, behind the guise of procedural posturing.”

Here’s the real “posturing” being done as perpetrated against the recreational hunting and fishing community as a whole. The Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 failed because there simply too many cooks in the kitchen.

Ducks Unlimited wanted to raise the federal duck stamp fees; the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) supported language to keep the Environmental Protection Agency out of the lead regulation game with regard to fishing tackle and bullets; the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) was hoping to see more funding from the Pittman-Robertson Act dedicated to development and operation of public shooting ranges; the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) supported the creation of a new National Fish Habitat Board to for “establishing national goals and priorities for aquatic habitat conservation;” even environmental groups like Nature Conservancy pushed for elements of this bill, like authorizing use of 1-1/2% of Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations for purchasing access to public lands from private sellers.

All totaled, there were about eight different pieces of legislation bundled together under one broad-based bill, devised with the help of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and their Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus. The problem of course with this many individual and diverse special interests included under one big umbrella is that it only takes one little tear in the fabric to get everyone else all wet.

After following the procession of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 through the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate during the course of several months, it’s been pretty interesting to see how so many individuals joined up with a caucus of one distinct voice. We at the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) certainly agree with and support certain pieces of legislation which have been bundled into the final package, however, we cannot sensibly endorse all legislative language under the umbrella, nor are we able to promote bills which are not supported by our stated mission “to safeguard the rights of saltwater anglers, protect marine, boat and tackle industry jobs, and ensure the long-term sustainability of our Nation’s saltwater fisheries.”

In other words, because elements of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 to allow for the importation of polar bear trophies from Canada or putting mandates on increasing duck stamp fees for U.S. waterfowl hunters are not issues supported by our mission, RFA is not able to sensibly endorse or support the entire umbrella.

I know it’s hard for folks like Ben Lamb to understand, but here’s the political reality simplified – no one buys a whole carton of eggs if one of them is cracked.

In the end, this appears to be about partisan politics destroying the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012, but not necessarily for the reason Lamb states. Even democrats like Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Sen. Bob Menendez who had opposed this legislation numerous times before had turned out with a favorable ‘yes’ vote on November 26th, a pretty good indication that something was amiss.

After reading through the Senate proceedings on November 26th, it’s quite clear that this was a vote about a tax increase and the apportionment of more money towards government programs. It was indeed a partisan standoff between democrats and republicans, with a very clear edict under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.

I’m sure the leaders of each of the organizations with their own dog in this hunt knew about the very tenuous thread by which their umbrella was woven. One slip, and the house of cards would come crashing down. Amendment 2875 was offered clearly as a request for Senators to ignore the Congressional Budget Act, if even just this one time. Some, perhaps Ben Lamb is one of them, would argue “hey, what’s $10?”

For the constituents, it’s not just $10 – it’s another $10! And as far as more taxes go, Congress has drawn a line in the sand – for now. As dysfunctional as we all believe it to be, so long as our elected representatives continue to add another fee here coupled with a new appropriation over there, the bickering will continue.

Individual saltwater anglers and business owners who had been asked to sign on to a pledge or petition to help pass the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 in the Senate may want to consider the following items in terms of saltwater fishing and the sportfishing industry as included in this bundle of legislative items, and where the RFA position stands on these specific items of marine interest.

Section 121 of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 would provide an exemption for fishing tackle to allow the continued use of lead in sinkers, jigs, some types of fishing line, and other materials deployed by saltwater anglers. As a stand-alone piece of legislation (S.838) called the Hunting, Fishing, and Recreational Shooting Protection Act, this language would block ongoing attempts by some environmental groups to federally ban lead in recreational fishing equipment and ammunition by clarifying the Toxic Substances Control Act. RFA supports S.838.

Section 122 of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 includes the same language regarding Pacific billfish that has already been signed into law by President Obama on October 5th. The so-called Billfish Conservation Act of 2012, which is in fact law today, would ban foreign imports of Pacific-caught billfish into the continental United States, but still allows those fleets to land and sell billfish in Hawaii and other Pacific Insular Areas like Guam and Samoa.

Furthermore, the new Billfish Conservation Act will allow commercial fishermen from Hawaii and these Pacific Insular Areas to continue to sell blue marlin, black marlin and striped marlin inside the continental United States. RFA did not support amendments made to the Billfish Conservation Act legislation since 2011 which now provides a loophole to allow for the continued sale of Hawaiian-caught billfish in the continental United States.

Additionally, because the U.S. Senate already sent the Billfish Conservation Act (S.3422) to the President for his signature into law (which has already taken place), RFA believes inclusion in the final Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 is mostly irrelevant at this time.

Section 123 of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 authorizes a report to be completed within 18 months on the feasibility and benefits of keeping inactive oil platforms in place for fish habitat. RFA endorses this language, while also supporting the Rigs to Reefs Habitat Protection Act (S.1555) which regrettably is not bundled into this final bill; S.1555 which would authorize the use of certain offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico for artificial reefs (perhaps pending results of the final report which would come from approval of section 123 of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012).

One additional piece of legislation incorporated into the final Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 is S. 1201, otherwise referred to as the National Fish Habitat Conservation Act. The primary purpose of this language according to the bill’s sponsors is to “conserve fish and aquatic communities in the United States through partnerships that foster fish habitat conservation, to improve the quality of life for the people of the United States.” To meet these lofty goals, S.1201 would create a National Fish Habitat Board to further promote, oversee, and coordinate the implementation of the Act while “establishing national goals and priorities for aquatic habitat conservation.”

RFA believes the creation of additional councils, commissions, boards, and summits offer excellent opportunities for bureaucrats and appointed professionals to meet and discuss important ecosystem issues in the United States. However, in the real world where U.S. anglers are being denied opportunities to fish because of an inflexible federal fisheries law bound by inadequate science and a “fatally flawed” recreational data collection program, the creation of a National Fish Habitat Board will be of no relevance to saltwater anglers.

So, the U.S. Senate has stalled on a comprehensive package of legislation in the form of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012. RFA offers the very best of luck to those supporters in getting this legislation passed. But for saltwater anglers hoping for improved access to vital saltwater fisheries, sensible reform of our nation’s federal fisheries law remains the most important action for congress to address in the coming months.

Protection of important fish habitat in the Gulf of Mexico is critical, and ensuring that environmental groups are impeded in their efforts to ban lead fishing tackle are key issues which should be taken up by Congress on behalf of saltwater anglers and business owners. However, RFA is not about to cry crocodile tears because of stalled legislation pushed by a group caucus, peer pressure mentality, especially given that there are many other pressing concerns which Congress should be addressing right now in terms of angler access and the future well-being of our recreational industry.

Sure, it’s just another $10 fee heaped on the nation’s sportsmen – and a $14 million override is relatively small when compared to the sums Congress usually spends.   

But the term “progressive, popular, good-government” is more than just a misnomer, it's an oxymoron wrapped in political doublespeak - another tax bundled up in a feel-good package which regrettably has very little impact on your access to coastal fisheries. 

Especially when considering the fact that Sandy's impact on the recreational fishing community alone on the East Coast could top $500 million...think about that when priortizing Congressional spending on critical saltwater angling interests in our frontyard!