June 19, 2012
by Pete Kasperowicz
The House voted Tuesday to ease more than a dozen environmental rules for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, to make it easier for them to patrol federally owned border land.
The provision was one of several in a land use bill that was made up of 14 different bills, some from Republicans, some from Democrats. The border agent provision was easily the most controversial, but despite Democratic opposition, the House approved the Conservation and Economic Growth Act, H.R. 2578, in a 232-188 vote.
The measure was ultimately supported by 16 Democrats in the final vote; 19 Republicans voted against it.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) was the chief defender of the border provisions, and argued, as he has in the past, that current environmental rules prohibit CBP agents from accessing huge areas of land that enjoys federal protections. He said this prevents any serious enforcement of the southern border, as illegal immigrants have no problem crossing through environmentally protected land.
"One of the ironies is our border patrol, which is tasked with securing our border, has almost unlimited rights to do what they need to do to protect our border on private property, and no one objects to it," Bishop said. "It is only on federal property that the federal border patrol is prohibited from doing its federal job."
Democrats sought to play up this language as an attempt to ignore environmental rules, and even expand unmanned drone use in the areas around border land.
"The GOP's 'drone zone' bill does not increase resources for border agents, but instead turns over our national resources to the Department of Homeland Security," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said.
"Passing this bill does not increase the number of border patrol agents. It just ignores the protections against trampling on sovereign and sacred ground like tribal gravesides."
Bishop rejected this interpretation of the amendment. "It's cute, but it's also inaccurate," he said of Markey's presentation. But Bishop did offer an amendment to the bill that reduced the number of environmental laws that can be waived by CBP agents to 16, down from 36. That amendment was approved by voice vote.
At another moment in the debate, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was arguing that a different section of the bill would allow for more logging along the Tongass River in Alaska, when she was interrupted by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who said millions of acres of forest land are already protected. That interruption led DeLauro, who never permitted Young to speak, to tell Young, "Just back off, OK?"
A full listing of the bills incorporated into H.R. 2578 can be seen here.
Immediately after the bill passed, members approved H.R. 2938, the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Clarification Act, which would prevent a tribe in Arizona from developing a casino on their land. It needed a two-thirds majority to pass, and cleared that hurdle easily in a 343-78 vote.