The Revealing Politics Behind the Issue of “Fire-Borrowing” and What Can Be Done About It

Aug 20, 2014

By Center for Western Priorities

By Greg Zimmerman and Jessica Goad

Wildfires are a perennial issue in the American West, and the question of how to pay their costs has never been more significant. But, in a twist that could only occur in today’s political climate, a broad bipartisan fix to this issue is currently mired in gridlock.

At issue is the fact that when wildland firefighting costs exceed the funding that is appropriated every year, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior are forced to dip into other accounts. This is called “fire-borrowing,” and it’s not a good policy. By “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” as the old adage goes, the federal government is actually draining critical money earmarked to reduce wildfire risks just to keep up with the growing costs of wildfire.

This week, the Western Governors Association even chimed in with a letter to Congressional leadership “strongly urging” them to “resolve this burgeoning problem for the West without further delay.”

Unlike most public policy issues, and natural resources issues in particular, this one has a potential bipartisan solution. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 has been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Under this act, the most expensive wildfires each year would be paid from disaster funds, similar to how the federal government funds recovery for other natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes.

More than a quarter of the members of the United States House have co-sponsored this bill, including over 50 Republicans. In fact, a Center for Western Priorities analysis finds that 65% of all Western House members have co-sponsored the bill.

But here’s the rub: in order to quickly move the bill through the House of Representatives, 218 members (an absolute majority) must sign a “discharge petition” for the bill. Currently, the discharge petition is only a few dozen signatures short of the necessary 218.

Here are the bill’s cosponsors who have not yet lent their names to the discharge petition:

Arizona: Rep. Matt Salmon (R)

California: Rep. Ken Calvert (R), Rep. David Valadao (R)‚ Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R)‚ Rep. Paul Cook (R)‚ Rep. Devin Nunes (R)‚ Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R)‚ Rep. Darrell Issa (R), Rep. Buck McKeon (R)‚ Rep. Edward Royce (R)‚ Rep. Tom McClintock (R)‚ Rep. Jeff Denham (R)‚ Rep. Duncan Hunter (R)

Colorado: Rep. Scott Tipton (R)‚ Rep. Cory Gardner (R)‚ Rep. Mike Coffman (R)‚ Rep. Doug Lamborn (R)

Idaho: Rep. Michael Simpson (R)‚ Rep. Raul Labrador (R)

Montana: Rep. Steve Daines (R)

New Mexico: Rep. Stevan Pearce (R)

Nevada: Rep. Mark Amodei (R)

Oregon: Rep. Kurt Schrader (D), Rep. Greg Walden (R)

Utah: Rep. Rob Bishop (R)‚ Rep. Chris Stewart (R)‚ Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R)‚ Rep. Jim Matheson (D)

Washington: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R)‚ Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler (R)‚ Rep. David Reichert (R)

It’s unclear why these politicians have not yet signed the discharge petition. An explanation could go a long way toward resolving the future of wildfire suppression funding in the west.