The Ineptitude of the Republicans is Costing Us Money

President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan
President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wikipedia)

Despite the fact that Republicans control the presidency and Congress, they have failed to raise the federal government’s debt ceiling, and it’s costing U.S. taxpayers a lot of money.

Congress authorized the accumulation of federal debt on a case-by-case basis until the 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I. That year it decided to establish an overall federal debt ceiling to provide more financial flexibility in order to finance the war effort. Since then, Congress has continued the strategy of authorizing debt ceilings.

In recent years, however, the authorization of debt ceiling increases has become a politically contentious process, despite the fact they are needed to pay for expenditures that have already been made. So Congress has resorted to temporarily suspending the debt ceiling. During these suspensions, the U.S. Treasury is authorized to borrow enough to pay all of the government’s existing commitments, irregardless of the most recently authorized debt ceiling. But when the suspension expires, the debt ceiling reverts to what it was before the suspension. The most recent suspension was passed in November 2015 and expired in March 2017, which reinstated the 2015 debt ceiling.

Subsequently, the Treasury has been unable to borrow enough money to meet its obligations since then, because the federal government has a budget deficit. They have been limping along using some accounting tricks. But it’s estimated that these emergency measures will be exhausted by the beginning of October.

This means that, unless the debt ceiling is increased before then, the federal government will be in default on its bond interest payments, which will hurt the nation’s credit rating. It will also be unable to pay other bills and there will be at least a partial government shutdown. Furthermore, the federal government’s 2018 fiscal year begins on October 1, and Congress still needs to approve annual appropriations bills. If these budget issues aren’t soon dealt with, there will be some very big problems.

But even if they get these things done in time, the Republicans have already cost us a lot of money. That’s because the “extraordinary measures” the Treasury has been forced to use to fund the government since March are more expensive than issuing government bonds, the method the Treasury normally uses to raise the money it needs to pay the bills that exceed the revenue collected from taxes. (Paying interest on bonds is relatively inexpensive these days because the Federal Reserve has been holding down interest rates in order to stimulate the economy.)

On July 26 Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma said during a Senate hearing that the Treasury’s extraordinary measures in 2017 had already cost taxpayers $2.5 billion. Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did not dispute the amount and agreed the situation was creating extra costs. It’s undoubtedly cost us much more than that by now.

The reluctance of Congress to raise the debt ceiling is driven by the growing concern about the increasing federal debt, which began a dramatic increase during the Reagan administration. Economists say that the reduction of federal budget deficits must be accomplished with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases in order to avoid harming the economy. But these types of political agreements are difficult, and far-right congressional Republicans have made them more so in recent years by using the authorization of debt ceiling increases as a weapon to engage in political brinkmanship, such as the government shutdown they instigated in 2013. They seem oblivious to the fact that their behavior is making the thing they’re worried about worse.

history of federal debt
Federal debt held by the public as a percentage of gross domestic product, from 1790 to 2013, projected to 2038. (Wikipedia)

Solving these important federal budget issues is also complicated by the fact that President Donald Trump has exhibited an alarmingly limited understanding of how the U.S. government works. He’s publicly criticized the Congressional Republicans he needs to work with, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. And he’s threatened to shut down the federal government if Congress doesn’t authorize funds to build the wall he wants to erect along the Mexican border. In addition, there’s the need to pass legislation as soon as possible to aid the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Furthermore, Trump’s decision to end the Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in six months has added major immigration reform to Congress’s agenda.

In the meantime, Congress seems to be making little headway on Trump’s tax reform and infrastructure spending proposals – two of his major campaign promises. And, of course, there are the constant distractions created by his controversial behavior, along with the ongoing investigations into his presidential campaign’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 election. The whole situation is pretty much a scary clown show.

The Myth About Livestock Waters on Western Public Lands

stock tank
Stock tank, Tonto National Forest, AZ (Jeff Burgess)

Several years ago I accompanied some U.S. Forest Service staff on a horseback inspection of a livestock grazing allotment located in the arid Superstition Mountains of the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona. As we neared a muddy stock tank perched on a chaparral-covered hill we scared off several mule deer that were taking a drink. The District Ranger turned toward me in his saddle and told me how glad he was that livestock were allowed to graze public lands, because the deer would be scarce if there weren’t any livestock waters.

The theory that the wildlife species native to the West’s arid ecosystems depend upon livestock waters for their survival is a popular one. Many federal land managers are willing to believe it. Their environmental assessments of grazing allotment management plans often warn that eliminating livestock grazing would harm local wildlife populations because the livestock waters wouldn’t be maintained.

Most ranchers also seem to believe it, and they frequently offer it in defense of livestock grazing on public lands. I’ve even had ranchers tell me there was hardly any wildlife in Arizona before ranchers arrived and “improved” the land, which is, of course, ridiculous (Davis 1982).

The idea that wildlife depend upon livestock waters is so prevalent there’s a conservation group called the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society that works with the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) to try and increase bighorn sheep numbers by constructing permanent water holes in the Sonoran desert.

Statewide, the AGFD maintains more than 725 wildlife waters at an estimated annual expense of about $400,000.

Dead rock squirrel that drowned in a cattle watering tank that lacked a wildlife escape ramp on the Tonto National Forest’s Cave Creek Ranger District, June 2018. (Tim Flood)

Despite all this, there’s surprisingly little scientific evidence to support this belief – and much that contradicts it. Even long-time proponents of livestock waters question their effectiveness (Brown 1997; Krausman 1997). For instance, a review of the AGFD bighorn sheep water development program (Broyles 1995) conducted in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge concluded, “It has not been shown that these developments are necessary, beneficial, or without harmful side effects.”

Another study conducted in southern New Mexico (Burkett and Thompson 1994) compared wildlife populations at 20 sites that had man-made waters with the same number of similar sites lacking permanent surface water. They found that, “definitive effects of artificial water sources on native wildlife species were not detectable.”

And another study conducted in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert  (Krausman and Etchberger 1995) looked at desert mule deer and bighorn sheep populations in the area of the Central Arizona Project canal before and after its construction. They found that, “additional water was not important to the deer or sheep populations.” And a more recent study of mule deer distribution in arid environments (Marshall 2006) found that forage quality was the most important habitat component, and additional livestock waters had little effect.

There are also studies suggesting livestock waters may have negative effects upon native wildlife. For example, they may provide habitat for invasive fish, bullfrogs, and crayfish that can get washed into streams during floods (Sponholtz 1997), and non-native species are the primary factor in the decline of native fish and amphibian species in the West (Simms 1997).

Building new livestock waters in upland areas is often justified by claiming they will lure cattle away from ecologically important riparian bottomlands. But cattle are bred to be lazy critters and are unlikely to climb a sunny hill in the heat to get a drink when the they can stay in the shade of a tree along a stream. Research has shown (Carter 2017) that upland water sources in the arid West don’t attract enough cattle out of riparian areas to allow these important habitats to achieve full ecological health.

The construction of new livestock waters is also used to improve livestock distribution on the uplands. The idea is to spread out the livestock more evenly to reduce overgrazing in areas where the animals like to congregate. It can help overused areas recover from overgrazing, but it can also bring the negative ecological impacts of grazing to new areas that were historically too dry for livestock use (McAuliffe 1997).

Still, the idea that more water means more wildlife sounds intuitively good. It’s an easy concept for hunters and hikers to believe because they know one of the best places to spot wildlife is around water holes. But just because animals congregate around water holes doesn’t mean they’re relying on that water source for their survival. For example, how often have you stopped to take a drink from a water fountain just because it was convenient?

Fetid stock tank, Coronado National Forest, AZ
(Jeff Burgess)

But what about all of those biologists warning us the majority of the West’s wildlife depend, in some way, upon riparian areas for their survival? Livestock waters rarely support significant amounts of riparian habitat. Many of them are so trampled by cattle they are considered ecological sacrifice zones.

Numerous studies have shown it’s the amount and quality of suitable habitat that has the most influence upon wildlife populations. For instance, AGFD research showed that Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelli) don’t need surface water, and the quantity and quality of forage was the most important limiting factor on quail populations (Gallizioli 1961). In other words, water is just one component of wildlife habitat, and most Western U.S. wildlife species are adapted to its scarcity.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Elk, for instance, behave much like cattle and livestock waters constructed by ranchers have helped them inhabit hotter and drier areas where they were historically scarce or nonexistent. It’s ironic, because ranchers often complain that local elk populations need to be reduced because they’re competing directly with their cattle for available forage.

The bottom line is the ecological effects of building livestock waters should be objectively considered. Sufficient vegetation to provide quality cover and forage appears to be more important than surface water for most arid land wildlife species. New livestock waters are very expensive and on public lands they are typically built with public funds. In most situations, it would be cheaper for the taxpayers if federal land managers would simply cut permitted livestock numbers to achieve natural resource goals.

References

Brown, D.E. 1997. Water for Wildlife: Belief Before Science. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Broyles, B. 1997. Reckoning Real Costs and Secondary Benefits of Artificial Game Waters in Southwestern Arizona. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Burkett, D.W., and B.C. Thompson. 1994. Wildlife Association with Human-Altered Water Sources in Semiarid Vegetation Communities. Conservation Biology 8(3):682-690.

Carter, J., Catlin J.C., Hurwitz, N., Jones, A.L., and J. Ratner. 2017.  Upland Water and Deferred Rotation Effects on Cattle Use in Riparian and Upland Areas . Rangelands Volume 39 (3-4):  112-118.

Davis, G. P. 1982. Man and Wildlife in Arizona. Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix, AZ.

Gallizioli, S. 1961. Water and Gambel quail. Arizona Game and Fish Department Bulletin. Phoenix, AZ.

Krausman, P. R., and R.C. Etchberger. 1995. Responses of Desert Ungulates to a Water Project in Arizona. Journal of Wildlife Management 59(2):292-300.

Krausman, P.R., and B. Czech. 1997. Water Developments and Desert Ungulates. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Marshal, J.P., V. C. Bleich, P. R. Krausman, M. L. Reed, and N. G. Andrew. 2006. Factors Affecting Habitat Use and Distribution of Desert Mule Deer in  an Arid Environment. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34(3):609-619.

McAuliffe, J.R. 1997. Rangeland Water Developments: Conservation Solution or Illusion? Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Simms, J. 1997. Some Effects of Stock Tanks on Aquatic Biodiversity in Arizona Streams. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Sponholtz, P.J., D.C. Redondo, B.P. Deason, L.M. Sychowski, and J.N. Rinne. 1997. The Influence of Stock Tanks on Native Fishes: Upper Verde River, Arizona. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Trump’s Border Wall Is A Dumb Idea

donald trump
Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall to stop illegal immigration along the entire 1,954 miles of the U.S border with Mexico is one of his most popular proposals – especially because he say he’s going to make Mexico pay for it. The wall is so controversial that former Mexican President Vicente Fox publicly declared that Mexico is not going to pay “for that fucking wall.”

One factor in Trump’s favor is that Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the REAL ID Act in 2005. Section 102 of the act gave the Secretary of Homeland Security sole discretion to ignore all laws when building border walls. According to this controversial provision, the only way a new border wall can be challenged in court is if it violates the U.S. Constitution.

A lot of arguments are being made for and against building the wall, and most of them are being made by people, like Trump, who have little firsthand knowledge of the situation along the border. But many Americans who live along the border in Arizona and New Mexico have come out against it – despite the fact that undocumented immigrants are causing serious problems for them.

“It doesn’t matter how tall of a wall you put up, they are going to tunnel under it, they are going to torch through it,” said New Mexican Erica Valdez, who has a ranch in the southwestern corner of the state. She was attending a March 10 public meeting about border security in Animas, NM.

In the border town of Nogales in neighboring Arizona many residents showing up at the polls to vote in the state’s March 22 presidential preference election also expressed a negative opinion about the wall.

One longtime Nogales resident told an Arizona Republic newspaper reporter that, “No matter how high, how thick or how good you build a wall, the Mexicans will find a way to come across. I will bet anyone they do.”

Another said a wall, “would be a waste of money. How many billions is it going to cost? That’s money that can go to something else.”

And another agreed that a wall, “is not practical. It costs too much money.”

The best way to control illegal immigration, these people agreed, would be to place more U.S. Border Patrol agents on the border.

Updates

On July 31, 2018, the Trump administration said it was waiving 37 environmental laws and regulations to build prototypes of the president’s planned border wall and to replace the existing border infrastructure along a 15-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico boundary near San Diego.

On October 10, 2018, the Trump administration announced it was waiving nearly 30 environmental laws to expedite the construction of additional border wall in Texas.

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