Some Republican members of House Natural Resources Committee gather to attack ESA and EAJA-

Congressional hearings are held in theory to help gather information to write legislation. Every standing committee of Congress has members of both parties in proportion to their numbers in the full House or Senate.  Many congressional hearings are not attended by most members of the committee or sub-committee. Instead, especially when taken on the road (called field hearings), just a small number of congressionals attend. They often have political objectives different from the view of most members of the committee.

So it was when five Republican members of the large House Natural Resources committee held a rump meeting of their committee in Billings, MT this week to criticize the ESA and as it turned out the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) which natural resource developers have been saying allows frivolous lawsuits.

The hearing was set up to hear one side only as reporter Laura Lundquist of the Bozeman Chronicle reports. The hearing’s actual purpose may have been to boost the U.S. Senate chances of Montana’s Republican U.S. Congressmen Steve Daines who is running for the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Max Baucus.

Reporter Lundquist listed the large number of resource development groups lined up to attack the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity’s use of the ESA and EAJA.

These groups say they use them to force the BLM and Forest Service to obey the laws, rules and regulations regarding grazing and related matters. Though criticized, these groups win many lawsuits. That fact ought to discredit the charge that their suits are frivolous. Judges never award victories to plaintiffs who bring what the judge thinks is a frivolous lawsuit. It may be the laws themselves. The critics just don’t like losing.

Lundquist wrote a credible article because she reported both sides, when she called up the groups criticized by the one-sided congressional hearing.  She asked for their opinion. Her efforts ironically served to make it into a real hearing.

The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) is a Reagan Administration law passed to make it so the average person and smaller groups can sue the federal government and get attorney’s fees if they win their case. The idea was to make it so that getting justice from the federal government ought not to be only something that wealthy groups and persons can afford to pursue.

Many EAJA cases involve federal land management agencies because these agencies not infrequently, flat-out ignore the laws and their own rules and regulations due to political pressure.

For several generations Congress has passed several hundred bills per session. This year it has passed only 15, probably a record low. Such a gigantic change calls into question the kind of congressional hearings being held, such as this one. Do they meet the constitutional justification for hearings?

 

 

 

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

8 Responses to Rump congressional committee hears Endangered Species Act critics in Billings, MT

  1. avatar Kristi says:

    I have suggested to the anti-wolf residents of ID, MT (the usual posters on a particular blog, amongst others), on several occasions, who jump up and down that the wolf reintroduction was illegal, that they could use EAJA funds to sue the government regarding this illegal act (cough, cough). They (Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd) have been rallying for donations for a lawsuit for years and no suit has come to fruition. Perhaps they should consider using EAJA funds to pay for their lawsuit? No, wait! That would make them hypocrites wouldn’t it? There is just way too much integrity floating around in that crowd to use EAJA funds for that, it just wouldn’t be appropriate.
    Kudos to Laura Lundquist for reporting this story.

  2. avatar JEFF E says:

    so could one refer to them as Rump Rangers

  3. avatar Ken Cole says:

    Actually, to put things into perspective, environmental lawsuits are a very, very small component of EAJA fee dispersals. Most EAJA fees are paid to people suing to receive Social Security benefits or other benefits.

    The industry groups are actually trying to reduce oversight of these agencies so that they can continue to flagrantly violate the law.

  4. avatar WM says:

    Ken,

    Maybe you have a good handle on this, but it was my understanding Interior and USDA did not know how much had been paid out, to whom and for what kinds of cases and under which statutes for a period of many years, like since the start of this in 1980.

    And, you may be correct, in your conclusion. However, I think it is important that federal reporting systems get up to speed to know EXACTLY how much has been paid out, to whom, and for what purposes. Doesn’t make any difference which agency, across all government programs.

    The reason is that it apparent nobody is tracking how much the federal government (taxpayer dollars) are paid out for its own agencies NOT following the law. And that is the really scary part, in my view. It is also important to know how much the federal government is spending to defend stupid positions taken by agencies – federal lawyers and judicial resources used up in some of these actions, judgments and settlements in which the government has not had defensible positions. There will always be gray areas of law, but some of these cases are the result of incredibly stupid positions taken by agencies. Even worse they don’t know how much they paid out and why – apparently even Treasury. This ought to be a warning for some of you who think a stronger federal government is a good thing – hell they don’t keep track of the money they spend or why.

    I think the real focus of these morons holding the hearings ought to be to flesh all these costs out for entire cases in which EAJA attorney fees are awarded., along with the alleged and maybe proven damage to federal property because of these bad decisions. And, they should get into place accounting systems with high visibility.

    For the deficiencies in the reporting system for awards see this GAO report:

    http://www.gao.gov/assets/600/590084.pdf

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      WM,

      I kind of agree with you.

      However, I don’t think there is much real concern about how much is paid out, nor much opposition to a bill giving the information.

      Those who want to change the Act say, “millions of dollars are being awarded.”

      “Millions of dollars” is not very much anymore. If cost is a true concern, the way to fix it is to have the agencies obey the laws and their own rules, but the people holding the hearing don’t like the laws and regulations for one reason or another. Therefore, they don’t like a legal mechanism (EAJA) used to enforce the laws.

      • avatar MAD says:

        after working in a govt agency for 20 years that employed 40,000 people, I have a very hard time accepting that this information “can’t readily be determined.” I’ll tell you right now, if indictments were handed down for embezzling or misappropriation of funds or illegal use of funds, there’d be trailers of documents flowing to D.C. showing how much was paid out.

        The problem lies in the fact that these Agencies have huge discretionary budgets and don’t want anyone to scrutinize what they do day to day. Then some idiot politician thinks they can gain some traction by calling attention to minor things like EAJA attorney fees. I’d wager these Agencies spend more on “employee conferences/training” and office supplies than EAJA awards.

  5. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Oh boy. The jokes just write themselves with this one. I’d say a meeting of a^$%@^#s, but I might get in trouble.

  6. avatar Richie G. says:

    Same as contractors in war profiteering nobody knows where the money goes.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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