/  Ranking Member Cole Hearing Remarks on H.R. 5 and H.R. 803

Ranking Member Cole Hearing Remarks on H.R. 5 and H.R. 803

As prepared for delivery during today’s hearing:
 
We have two items on our agenda today. The first I’ll discuss is H.R. 803, the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act.  The bill is a collection of eight underlying bills, all referred to the Natural Resources Committee, that all designate specified tracts of land for protection as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. It also includes one measure that eliminates oil and gas exploration on certain lands in Arizona near the Grand Canyon.

While I think all members of Congress, including Republicans, would agree that protecting public lands in an important goal, I have some real concerns about this package. First and foremost, this is a partisan package. Not a single Republican has signed on to any of the underlying bills as a co-sponsor, and some of the lands designated for protection under this bill are in congressional districts where the local Member of Congress does not even support this action. That alone is an inauspicious start for this package.

Second, I think we need to be clear about what the impact of this bill will be. While shifting lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System for protection may sound good to the casual observer, there are significant consequences that come with doing so. The lands in question are removed from economic development, which undoubtedly will have a negative impact on the economic base of the area in which the lands are located. Moving lands into the National Wilderness Preservation System also has the impact of removing them from use for motorized recreation, which will further harm economic development. Similarly, the section of the bill removing lands from availability for mining can also be expected to drive down the economic base of that region. This bill is a recipe for putting additional economic pressure on rural areas that are already suffering under the weight of the pandemic.

Third, Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee have expressed concerns that the majority is not taking into account fire prevention plans and policies, which have not yet been updated to account for the new additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on these concerns.

Our second item is H.R. 5, the Equality Act. This is a complicated and complex piece of legislation that would make sweeping changes to our nation’s civil rights laws, if enacted.

As a first matter of concern, I note that this bill is coming to the Rules Committee absent a markup in the Judiciary Committee, the committee of jurisdiction. Indeed, this bill was only introduced last Thursday and had no committee action prior to its consideration here today in Rules. 

However, my concern here is not the violation of the so-called “McGovern Rule” requiring all bills coming before Rules to have had a hearing and markup in the committee of jurisdiction. Rather, this bill is an illustration of why the McGovern Rule is a good guide for us to follow, regardless of whether or not it is required. H.R. 5 is a deeply complicated bill that will make serious changes to American civil rights laws. On a matter this complex, that touches all Americans and will make such sweeping changes to our laws, do we not owe it to ourselves, to the institution and to the American people to take the time to actually consider this? Are we not best served on something this important to take the time to let members do their due diligence, make sure that their constituents understand the implication, examine it in committee and ensure it gets all the debate time needed so that all sides are heard and all ideas are considered? The failure to do so here is simply astonishing to me.

That failure is most evident when one considers the real lack of information about how this bill will work in practice. Much that is in this bill is well-intentioned. But I share the concerns of my Republican colleagues who believe that parts of this bill may ultimately be unworkable. For example, the bill includes the term “gender identity” – a term that has such a vague definition that even proponents of the bill do not agree on exactly what the term means. And I could say the same for the wholesale changes this bill will require for women’s athletics, for domestic violence shelters and for any other location traditionally segregated according to sex.

When making changes to our civil rights laws, important as they are to our nation, we need to be very clear about what the law means and how it is to be applied. Failing to do so will prevent Americans from knowing what, exactly, Congress intends, which is a recipe for disaster in enforcing the law.

While I respect the author and the work he has done, I do not believe this bill, as written, is clear enough to handle the myriad of difficult situations that will inevitably arise from its application. 

The solution to that problem is clear enough: since members of the Judiciary Committee did not have the opportunity to amend the bill to make it better and clearer, then I believe the House must have the opportunity to amend the bill on the floor. I believe this committee should make as many amendments in order as possible to ensure that all sides are heard and debated on the floor. At the very least, providing for a rule that meets that goal will ensure that all members will have had a chance to consider this bill, to propose new ideas and to ensure that each idea receives fair and open consideration. Since H.R. 5 is about fairness and equality, we should ask nothing less of ourselves than we are asking of the American people.

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Created: February 23, 2021