By Susan Culliney
What do taxes, health care, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge all have in common? They all appear in the monster tax reform package that Congress is aiming to pass in early December. Never before has the Arctic Refuge faced such a perilous, yet complicated, future. Congress is using the fast-tracked budget reconciliation process to achieve tax reform, tacking on Arctic Refuge and the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate to create something akin to a Frankenstein monster.
Any tax package that does pass in the Senate will almost certainly contain Arctic Refuge drilling. The fate of the Refuge is therefore tied inextricably to the success of the Senate’s tax package as a whole. Certain lawmakers may not care deeply about the Refuge per se, but could oppose aspects of tax reform, or could oppose repealing the individual mandate. In the end, a vote against the tax reform package for any reason is a de facto vote against drilling in the Refuge.
Things could move fast. But while Senate leadership is trying to act quickly on this tax reform package, two complicating factors greet them in early December. First, a different piece of financial legislation, the funding “appropriations bill” that doles out money to government agencies, was never passed this year. Congress has been making do by passing “continuing resolutions,” which keep government funding levels unchanged. But the latest continuing resolution runs out on December 8th. Congress will need to vote on a new continuing resolution by that date in order to avoid causing a government shut-down. The second complicating factor in December is the controversial Alabama senatorial election, which will take place on December 12th. The results from this special election could change the political dynamics in the Senate. Senate leadership is therefore trying hard to vote on the monster tax package before these complicating events make a vote even more fraught with difficulty.
Even if Congress fails to pass the tax package by the end of this year, the Arctic Refuge will remain at risk through 2018 and perhaps for longer, as long as pro-drilling votes are a majority in Congress and as long as a pro-drilling President awaits to sign drill bills into law. Just as the health care issue seemed laid to rest numerous times, the Refuge issue will continue to be attached to budget processes for the foreseeable future.
A complex and difficult political landscape faces Americans today, and environmental issues like the Arctic Refuge are but one facet. It is easy to get discouraged and exhausted from all the important issues demanding our attention. Alaskans may feel particularly disheartened to see public lands in our own backyard facing so much pressure. Rest assured that your voice still counts, and people are listening. Collectively, our numbers and voices work together like so many candles in the dark to shine light on the lands and wildlife issues that are important to us.
But this is a marathon, not a sprint. Remember to take a break from politics and seek out your favorite birds in your favorite public lands. You support birds and lands by emailing and phoning lawmakers; but you also vote with dollars and footsteps by getting outside and enjoying our nation’s birds and wild places. Audubon Alaska is committed to protecting lands like the Arctic Refuge for the long haul, and we will need you there to lend help along the way.