The House Rules Committee debates HR 5781, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014

Rules Committee headerThe only debate on HR 5781 California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014 apparently was in the House Rules Committee hearing on December 3. The Rules Committee, chaired by Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX), acts as the legislative gatekeeper, deciding for how long and under what rules the full body will debate the proposition.

Congressman Valadao (R-CA) began with his opening statement:

“I appreciate you holding this hearing and request a closed rule for your consideration of 5781, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act.

This bill is a bipartisan emergency bill that would provide water to California residents and is reflective of our previous negotiations with our two senators from California, Senators Feinstein and Boxer.

Valadao 1This year, California’s water challenges have been made exponentially worse than previous years by record low precipitation. Unfortunately, even in the face of record drought conditions, federal regulations continue to divert billions of gallons of water away from farmers and families and out into the ocean. This bill is a good faith effort to provide immediate, short-term relief while protecting the State Water Project and northern California water rights. This bill will transition us into future negotiations with the Senate.

I appreciate your time and consideration of my bill, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014. Our farmers are suffering, our communities are suffering. While every single person in my district is affected by this drought, we need immediate relief.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your consideration.”

Congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA, Chair of House Committee on Natural Resources) then added:

Just a little bit of history. The drought has been going on in California for some time, but even before the drought, there were issues there with the use of water in California. It’s been a debate that’s been going on for some time.

In the last Congress, we passed a comprehensive bill to deal with that, and this year, we passed a very similar bill with a few changes that were sponsored by Mr. Valadao to respond to that. The good news is that the Senate also passed a bill. It was not as comprehensive as what our bill was, and after both bodies had passed a bill, there were negotiations that were going on. I participated in one of the meetings with the two senators from California; and Mr. Valadao and others in the Central Valley of California have participated.

Hastings 1My understanding is that this legislation, and these are very difficult negotiations, I’m not going to try and sugarcoat that at all, but unfortunately they broke off because of timing and other issues, but this bill represents here what they had largely agreed upon in these negotiations with Senator Feinstein specifically, who has taken the lead on this.

I think this legislation is important to show, particularly the people in California, that this Congress wants to resolve these issues. As was mentioned earlier today, it’s raining in California, but there needs to be a means by which to capture that rainwater, and that was a big focus of what our bill was that came out of the house.

This is simply a means, this is not the end all, but it is something that has been largely agreed upon in these negotiations to demonstrate that there is an effort to resolve this issue. And the bill expires in a couple of years to allow people time to get a more comprehensive approach, so it’s an approach that has stop-gap measures, but it does want to demonstrate that we need to address this on a national level, so ..”

Congressman Grace Napolitano (D-CA, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Water and Power) then said:

“It is important to note that this bill hasn’t been negotiated with the senate, and if you call bipartisan one member of Congress on the Democrats side, then I hate to think of what bipartisan really means anymore.

The whole state is in drought, the whole state of California. It isn’t just the Central Valley or Northern California – all of California is in drought condition. It is the third year, the driest year on record.

Napolitano 2And this bill, 5781, was introduced last night with no hearings, no markups, no input from any Southern Californian – at least none that I know of. Nobody has come up to the table and said, ‘we’ve talked about it’, nobody has outreached to me as a ranking member of the Subcommittee on Water and Power. We have not had any hearings, any briefings – nothing.

The senate bill that was dropped by Senator Feinstein, it was withdrawn – apparently there had been a draft made and nobody had seen it. Nobody was allowed to see it. It was kept behind closed doors, and to me, that is not the way we should be operating in this Congress. Whether in the Senate or in the House, we should have the opportunity to discuss, to be able to give input, to be part of the solution, and to come to some agreement as to what is a necessity …

But rushing this bill to the floor without input of the water leaders … It is being rushed through without being able to understand the effect it’s going to have, whether unintended or otherwise, whether it’s to the tribes, whether it’s to the senior water rights holders, to Southern California. This bill does very little for Southern California, and it’s very iffy if there is any of it that is going to be actually beneficial to my constituency, whether all the way down to San Diego and otherwise. …

We should be working across the state on a bipartisan basis, and we should be sitting at the table and finding solutions that are going to help us be able to deal with the drought for the whole state of California. … We need to understand that Southern California is part of California, so if we deal with California Drought Relief Act, it should include Southern California. It’s focusing more on the Central Valley, at the expense of many of the other exporters, which includes Southern California.

It’s a zero sum game, and it would increase the flows to junior rights water rights holders in the Central Valley, then you take away from others, so if there isn’t any water to share, how are you going to replenish that for somebody else, whether it’s the environmental, the estuaries, things that we have been trying to protect for many decades.

I plead with you that we need to be working together, and be more effective to bring solutions on a bipartisan basis and give this the proper airing, the proper hearing it deserves, for the benefit of the greatest state.

Thank you very much.

Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA) added:

“There’s a bit of a narrative that we’re hearing that because it’s raining today in California, water is wasting to the sea and that we need a bill like this so we can capture it in this critical drought. I just want to inject a few facts about that. The fact is that is raining and that’s good news, but the pumps in the Delta have increased, and they are now at the maximum level allowed under the water right permit for the state and federal projects. So truth is today in California, it’s not the Endangered Species Act keeping the state and federal projects from pumping more; it is there permit and the salinity standards that are part and parcel of that water permit and it’s important that people recognize that because this bill, even if passed, would not enable more pumping right now or in lots of other times in the state.

Huffman 1Mr. Chairman, it feels like we were just here earlier this year discussing a bill that had never been reviewed by the Natural Resources Committee, which would harm California fisheries and tribal interests, undermine state law, deprive water managers of the critical flexibility they need in a complicated system like California’s, and micromanage the water system of California in a very unwise way, and yet here we go again.

If ever there’s a bill that would call for an open rule, this is it. This is a bill that has never been reviewed by the authorizing committee, let alone marked up in any open session, nor have we received the input of state and federal water agencies with the responsibility for clean water and fisheries management, we haven’t received the input of locally affected water agencies, fishing industry interests, tribes, or communities that would absolutely be impacted if this bill became law.

There’s been reference made to bipartisan collaboration including with Senator Boxer of California. I think it’s important to note, Mr. Chair, that Senator Boxer doesn’t see this bill as this a good positive product of good bipartisan collaboration. In fact, she issued a statement just today saying she’s carefully reviewed it and she is dismayed, dismayed that this measure would reignite the water wars by overriding critical state and federal protections for California. The GOPs proposals would dictate specific pumping levels regardless of the opinions of scientists, which could jeopardize our state’s salmon fishing industry. She goes on to talk about the return to regular order and a better, more inclusive process for this complex issue, as Senator Feisntein herself noted, less than two weeks ago when she called for this issue to be halted for this session of Congress and to be brought up in regular order in January. … “

Mr. Huffman says there’s a number of questions that need to be answered, such as does it impact the State Water Board’s ability to issue curtailments if necessary? Does it affect the federal government’s ability to do other things that might be necessary, such as filling reservoirs or public health? Does it put additional pressure on Trinity River supplies? Does it protect tribal trust responsibilities in those watersheds? Mr. Huffman notes the word ‘tribal’ is not mentioned in the bill at all. He also suggests the act undermines state water rights as well as the California Endangered Species Act, and there are misstatements about federal water contract law in at least two places.

“There are all sorts of concerns, serious, technical flaws in this bill. In addition to this deeply flawed process that has brought us to this point, and I just want to state if ever there was a case where the amendment process, a little bit of debate, a little bit of input, and deliberation would do some good, it is with this bill, so I respectfully ask that there e an open rule so we can fix the deep flaws.”

Discussion …

Chairman Pete Sessions said to Mr. Huffman, “I note that the act expires on September 30, 2016, so this is a short term answer to a long-term problem.”

If I could, Mr. Chair, there are salmon populations that are hanging by a vital thread, holding off against extinction,” responded Mr. Huffman.  “So it may seem like a window of that type prevents any major harm, but for the survival of those species and for the communities and jobs and industries that depend on them, that’s a big deal.”

Mr. Valadao pointed out that when the Governor decides the drought declaration is over and he rescinds that, that would also kill the bill earlier if need be. “But as far as communities, I literally have people in my district building shacks out of plywood and plastic and living on the sides of the streets because they are out of work. We’ve got double the unemployment numbers of the rest of the country, and this is something that needs to be resolved …”

Yes, it’s a complicated issue,” continued Mr. Valadao, “but when you’ve got the situation that we face in the valley with the unemployment numbers, with the families suffering, who are literally fighting for every drop of water to get to those communities, who have met every one of their obligations on reductions and water use and have done their part, we are asking for just a little window of help to help these people to get by so they can feed their families.”

Sessions 3Let me see if I can get this right,” Mr. Sessions said. “This is a matter of taking the water that might be held in storage, and for these communities to use for themselves …?

“It’s not that simple,” said Mr. Valadao.  “We want water that is going out to the ocean … ”

Instead of a reservoir, it’s flowing down the river … ” said Mr. Sessions.

800,000 acre-feet of water went out into the ocean just this time last year that in a normal year would have been captured,” said Mr. Valadao.  “If you compare other drought years in the past, even in my short life span, we’ve had opportunities with less water that we were able to capture more and deliver more. It wasn’t 100% allocation for my communities in the district, but it was 40% compared to the 0 they are getting today. And so there is a difference and there is still an opportunity for plenty of water to go out into the ocean but those deals were made at different points in our history, and slowly they’ve just chipped away and chipped away until now we’re down to 0, and we’re just asking for enough to keep our families alive.

Let me see if I can try this again,” said Mr. Sessions.  “I think that what this boils down to is the water goes down the river instead of being held, for whatever purpose. … But you would like to keep more of what would go down the river to the ocean. And then the salmon come out of the ocean and up the river and if there’s not enough water, Mr. Huffman believes the salmon will not be able to continue and the industries along there, as opposed to other people who really need it in agriculture. Different agriculture, but agriculture, in the valley. Is that what this really boils down to?

Hastings explainsThe issue of California water is pretty complex and because California is a complex state, there’s no question about that,” said Mr. Hastings. The California delegation along with Mr. Hastings continued discussing and debating the bill and California water history for about an additional ten minutes.

At the conclusion, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said, “As long as I have been on Rules Committee we flog this horse every time we turn around. I do not feel in any way equipped to answer the questions of California Water. It seems to me by this time the Californians would have settled this one way or another and not come up here consistently.”

One thing I know for sure, it’s not an emergency today, and it’s not an emergency because it rained,” she continued.   “But we are getting so used to running the Rules Committee by writing something at midnight and throwing it at someone and telling the rest of us on our side, “We’ve got a brand new bill and it’s an emergency and we’ve got to deal with it right away.” Nonsense. This is the same bill that’s been around here forever and I do not believe a minute of that. They just thought it would be a great idea at the end of session here in lame duck, ‘let’s see if we can ram this one through.’

Slaughter 2I do not know what the consequences of this are and I really feel almost guilty sitting here trying,” said Ms. Slaughter. “It’s the same thing we had earlier with the Tribes. Apparently nobody was consulted that has the real answers to this issue. And did you all know this bill was coming? We’re you notified as Members of the California Delegation?

Not at all, in fact, in the entire two year session we’ve had, the discussions been underway in the press and in this closed group that’s been negotiating; I haven’t had a single conversation,” said Congressman Huffman. “I don’t know if ranking member Napoltiano has either … Not only were we systematically excluded from the discussion – I did not have a conversation about this subject. And you are exactly right my friend Mr. Valadao’s bill was introduced as a repackaging of Mr. Nunes’ bill from the prior Congress and the term Drought Emergency were pasted across it.”

And Mr. Cardoza’s before that,” said Ms. Slaughter.  “I’m sorry I feel really bad. I rejoice that it’s raining up there. I know that it means also that your houses are going to slide down the hill, but none-the-less I do hope that you get lots and lots of rain to solve this problem. It’s a tragedy no question. But I think to just snatch this up out of the ether and throw it up on this Rules Committee one more time –  Mr. Valadao, you are a nice man, but we fought this battle so many times. We can’t solve this for you in the Rules Committee, I think, or in the House. As far as I can tell this should be something Californians dealing with the federal and state agencies that have some control over it need to do it. Not having 435 of us vote on something we don’t know a darn thing about. I wish you the best and we could send you some snow pack.”

We talk a lot about process … “ interjected Mr. Hastings.

But we never do anything about it,” said Ms. Slaughter.

I want to emphasize this point,” said Congressman Hastings. “The House has passed a bill. Obviously the Senate had a different view. The Senate passed a bill. Now the proper procedure would be to go to conference and we know that. Whenever there is any bill in my committee or any other bill, there are pre-conference discussions. It is precisely these pre-conference discussions that were going on with Mr. Valadao and principally with Senator Feinstein.   I understand and respect the fact that not all Californians have been part of that, but that’s not necessarily unusual. Keep in mind the process is both bodies have passed a bill ... “

“That’s fine but I understand the Governor doesn’t know about this,” replied Ms. Slaughter. “Nor the State Legislature knows about this. Or the California Water Board knows anything about this. But the Rules Committee is going to sit here and decide what to do when those people who are experts and devote their lives to it are left completely out of this. I do not believe that’s any kind of process. I’ve served in three Legislatures; we never ran anything like this.

During those negotiations the administration has been engaged and even the Governor’s administration has given some input and we have taken some of that input into the Legislation,” said Mr. Valadao. “It has been done quietly because there are people out there that think this needs to be blown up and killed and destroyed and in the interest of protecting our families and protecting our communities we have had to do everything we could to move legislation forward. We’ve had input from the Brown administration and the White House in everything we have done so far.”

Huffman NapolitanoAnd I might add the input has not been favorable,” said Mr. Huffman. “There is no one in the Brown Administration in the State of California urging Congress to take this action and in fact when they were allowed, when they had enough time to put on paper to respond to a previous bill, they thought it was a terrible idea. There has been input from CEQ and others at the White House on other drafts of this Legislation that I have seen that has not been favorable to some of these concepts.”

That, Mr. Huffman, is precisely why it comes to the Rules Committee having nobody seen it,” replied Ms. Slaughter. “We didn’t know until about 3 o’clock this afternoon that it was even here. And we are supposed to do a sleight of hand and pull something off. I do not like to be party to that. I did not come here to do those kinds of tricks. And I can see the potential to do great harm. And it seems to me that Californians, as I said earlier to start with, should be making this decision and getting it done. Tell Governor Brown it would be nice if he would fix it. I would tell Governor Cuomo that in a New York minute.”

The hearing was then closed. Ultimately, here’s what the Rules Committee decided:

  • Closed rule for H.R. 5781. (A closed rule a rule that prohibits amendments to a bill from the floor. )
  • Provides one hour of debate equally divided and controlled by the chair and ranking minority member of the Committee on Natural Resources.
  • Waives all points of order against consideration of the bill. (A point or order is a claim made that a rule of the debate is being violated, such as exceeding time or bringing introducing a new argument during a rebuttal speech.)
  • Provides that the amendment printed in part C of the Rules Committee report shall be considered as adopted, and the bill, as amended, shall be considered as read.
  • Waives all points of order against provisions in the bill, as amended.
  • Provides one motion to recommit with or without instructions.

What’s next …

  • On Monday, the House will meet at 12:00 p.m.EST/9:00 PST for morning hour and 2:00 p.m. EST/11AM PST for legislative business. No votes are expected.  First item on schedule: H.R. 5781 – California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014 (Closed Rule, One Hour of Debate) (Sponsored by Rep. David Valadao / Natural Resources Committee) Click here for the leader’s weekly schedule.  (SEE BELOW)

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