Congressman Rob Bishop as Chairman
As Utah Congressman Rob Bishop approaches the end of his first term as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, the Center for Western Priorities is offering this feedback on his job performance.
CWP is a conservation policy organization that advocates for data-driven approaches to public lands management and energy production. Since Chairman Bishop is the most powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives when it comes to our nation’s parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands, we think it’s important to share recommendations on how he can better serve the interests of the American people and the Western lands that belong to all of us.
While his first term as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee began with significant goodwill and a commitment to address the challenges facing America’s public lands, waters, and other natural resources, his follow-through has left much to be desired. We hope the congressman will use this report card to help guide his decisions and priorities in the coming weeks and months.
First-Year Chairman Orientation
A confident start strikes a new tone in Washington
His decision to replace the committee’s communications staff initially paid dividends, earning several weeks of glowing stories as he assigned subcommittees and discussed his policy priorities for the 114th Congress.
“Rep. Rob Bishop may be ready to spar with the Obama administration on some key public lands and energy issues. But he’s also setting a different tone from that of his predecessor, encouraging conservation advocates to think they may be able to find common ground this Congress.”
What kept Rep. Bishop from receiving an ‘A+’ in this subject was his decision to hire several oil and gas industry officials to work on the subcommittee that oversees oil and gas leases on public lands. Press coverage that highlights industry insiders working for the chairman contributes to the impression that Washington D.C.’s revolving door is alive and well at the Natural Resources Committee.
Self-inflicted injuries lead to negative stories
After Chairman Bishop’s strong rollout, the congressman has had a more rocky relationship with the media.
Much of the negative coverage came from Rep. Bishop’s long-promised Public Lands Initiative, legislation which has been in the works for over three years. Initially covered as a promising “grand bargain” that would resolve long-running conflicts on Utah’s public lands, the secrecy and slow pace with which Rep. Bishop developed the bill led to months of negative headlines from local papers. An August 2015 article pointed out the plan, which was still months away, “pleases neither environmentalists nor Republican leaders.” Another headline simply read “Where is Rob Bishop’s promised lands bill?”
Rep. Bishop told a reporter that “people will win and people will lose” in what he had pitched as a “grand bargain,” indicating to the press and constituents alike that his legislation would pick winners and losers.
Many of Rep. Bishop’s troubles could have been avoided by setting realistic expectations. Rep. Bishop originally promised to unveil the PLI in March 2015. He finally released a discussion draft in January 2016, missing his self-imposed deadline by ten months.
Later in the term, when tasked by the Speaker of the House with shepherding a solution to Puerto Rico’s debt crisis through Congress, Rep. Bishop again missed deadlines and lost control of the media narrative, leading to a revolt within the GOP and an ad campaign targeting Rep. Bishop at home in Utah.
In the future, Rep. Bishop should set viable timelines for his legislation and stick to them, stay on message when speaking to reporters, and focus on the issues rather than being sidetracked by political sideshows (like complaining when outside groups use old photos depicting the congressman before he lost weight).
A lack of respect for constituents generates alienation and anger
Despite promising a “grand bargain” on Utah’s public lands, his Public Lands Initiative arrived to a chorus of criticism from Utahns across the spectrum, including local government officials, Native American tribes, conservation organizations, and outdoor recreationists. These are the very people Chairman Bishop claimed to have included in the lengthy planning process.
One constituent was so upset after meeting with Rep. Bishop in person to discuss the Public Lands Initiative that he wrote an op-ed excoriating the congressman for “misrepresenting the facts to one of his own constituents.”
The congressman’s relationship with Utah’s tribal leaders appears to be at an all-time low. Members of multiple tribes complain loudly that Bishop dismisses their concerns and misstates the facts about the Bears Ears region. The Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah holds significant cultural importance to Utah’s tribes, but currently lacks protections for its cultural and scenic values. The tribes are so disappointed in Rep. Bishop’s leadership that they’re asking President Obama to step in and protect Bears Ears using the Antiquities Act.
Chairman Bishop has also publicly threatened the many Utahns and Americans who are supportive of the Antiquities Act, one of the most important conservation laws which has been used by nearly every U.S. President since Theodore Roosevelt to protect public lands. The Antiquities Act protected places like the Grand Canyon, Glacier Bay, Arches, and dozens of other iconic public lands.
Congressman Bishop was recorded last year saying:
“If anyone here likes the Antiquities Act the way it is written, die. I mean, stupidity out of the gene pool. It is the most evil act ever invented.”
Only one of Rep. Bishop’s core constituencies appears pleased with his work as chairman: the oil and gas industry. The Western Energy Alliance remains strongly supportive of the congressman, saying, for example, their interests are well-represented in the Public Lands Initiative, keeping this grade from falling to an ‘F’.
In the future, Rep. Bishop should do a much better job of listening, show respect for people who may have different opinions and values than he does, and take all constituent input seriously before presenting bills that purport to have been written with their interests in mind.
A dearth of achievements reflects unpopular policy goals
Chairman Bishop’s legislative accomplishments have thus far been a failure. While at the helm of the Natural Resources Committee, he has accomplished none of his substantive legislative goals.
Not one of the chairman’s priorities — from overhauling the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the Public Lands Initiative — has gotten off the ground, much less out of his own committee.
Chairman Bishop has developed an unsettling habit of not even introducing bills he hopes to pass. His modus operandi is the “discussion draft” — posting a draft bill online, but never formally introducing it in Congress.
Despite broad bipartisan support for its renewal, Rep. Bishop allowed the Land and Water Conservation Fund to expire in September 2015, after 50 years of protecting America’s public lands. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is one of the most important sources of funding to protect public lands from development and ensure lands remain open and accessible to all Americans. And yet Chairman Bishop blocked a bill that would have permanently renewed the fund, all while refusing to release details of his own “reform” plan.
Finally, after LWCF expired, Rep. Bishop unveiled a discussion draft of his proposed changes. The draft was so poorly received that Rep. Bishop has yet to update it or introduce it as a formal bill, much less hold a committee hearing on it.
Faced with LWCF’s expiration and Rep. Bishop’s lack of leadership, Congress eventually passed a three-year renewal of the fund over Bishop’s objections.
The Public Lands Initiative followed a similar process — a discussion draft accompanied by a dedicated website. Despite overwhelming opposition, Rep. Bishop has proposed no changes to the discussion draft, nor has he introduced it before his own committee.
More concerning is Rep. Bishop’s apparent inability to learn from past mistakes. When House Speaker Paul Ryan tasked Chairman Bishop with fixing Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, he once again introduced a discussion draft, promising an “open process with proper input.” But when his discussion draft fell flat, Bishop cancelled a planned markup without comment, instead letting ranking member Raúl Grijalva explain the delay.
There was also no reason for Bishop to delay introducing his Puerto Rico legislation — it was already written for him. Bishop’s bill existed as S. 2381, the Puerto Rico Assistance Act of 2015. That bill was introduced last December, only to have Chairman Bishop largely copy and rename it the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Stability Act three months later, while leaving much of the bill’s original language intact. One of the few major changes to the chairman’s bill was the addition of a controversial — and ideologically driven — plan to dispose of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.
By all objective measures, Rep. Bishop is a remarkably ineffective chairman. GovTrack’s 2015 report card ranks him among the worst committee chairmen and ranking members on every single metric:
Despite Chairman Bishop’s thin legislative accomplishments, he has found time to help run the Federal Land Action Group, or FLAG. The FLAG is a faux-committee with no legislative authority and without the pretense of bipartisanship. It meets on an irregular schedule to complain about public lands management and chart a path forward for disposing of public lands into state and private hands.
If Chairman Bishop hopes to improve his effectiveness as a legislator in the future, we recommend he spend more time introducing and working on legislation, and less time being distracted by ideological and hyper-partisan activities like the Federal Land Action Group.
A lack of leadership creates repeated obstruction without partnerships
Rep. Bishop has a history of suppressing bills despite broad bipartisan support. In addition to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Chairman Bishop also refused to allow a hearing or a vote on H.R. 167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. This bill is among the most bipartisan pieces of legislation currently before the Natural Resources Committee, with strong support from Republicans and Democrats alike. As one Republican congressman put it, “How many more wildfires have to scorch our landscapes before Congress passes the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act…” Yet Chairman Bishop has shown no interest in allowing action on the bill.
Even the congressman himself admits that the few bipartisan bills he did allow out of his committee were mostly “low-hanging fruit.”
It also remains concerning that Rep. Bishop believes criticism of his policy priorities is a reason to not consider compromise or changes to his legislation. While under pressure to allow a vote on a bipartisan bill that would have permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the chairman made it clear he had no intention of allowing such a vote to occur. At the same time, he told KSL Newsradio that a series of ads critiquing his effort to dismantle the Land and Water Conservation Fund meant he was “on the right track.”
Returning to GovTrack’s 2015 metrics, Rep. Bishop is again among the worst on every objective measure of bipartisanship:
There was one brief flicker of bipartisanship early in the chairman’s tenure: When Democrats urged Chairman Bishop to make climate change an explicit part of the committee’s priorities, he allowed a voice vote on the matter. According to E&E News, “Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of the climate change amendment, while Republicans stayed largely silent.”
Rather than celebrating his status as someone to be attacked, Rep. Bishop would do better in future sessions to not only engage his critics, but embrace differing opinions and work toward true compromise as a chairman.
Goals for the future
Rep. Bishop has had some difficulties adjusting to the role of committee chairman. New jobs often come with unexpected challenges, but the chairman has the opportunity to make changes before the end of the session.
We recommend the chairman engage with members of his committee from both parties. When presented with a bipartisan bill, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund or the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, the chairman could rapidly improve his performance by allowing a quick markup and vote, so the full House of Representatives has the opportunity to weigh in on the bill.
We also recommend the chairman spend more time taking constituent feedback seriously and incorporating that feedback into his legislation. This means holding real public listening sessions, taking diverse perspectives into account, and showing respect for people from different backgrounds who may hold different opinions from his own.
Since Rep. Bishop still hasn’t introduced the Public Lands Initiative as a formal bill, he has the opportunity to go back and craft a proposal that brings stakeholders back to the table. We recommend Chairman Bishop enlist the help of a third-party mediator to bring all sides together and craft a public lands bill that incorporates true protections for Bears Ears, allows for responsible energy development, and expands recreational access to Utah’s spectacular public lands.
If Chairman Bishop takes a step back from his ideology and embraces the need to build consensus, we’re confident he can turn his low grades around by the next session.