Commander Zinke and the great land transfer flip-flop 

Last week, during what are probably his waning days in office, Montana's Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke voted to change House rules in a way that will make it easier to transfer federal lands to the states. Currently, the Congressional Budget Office accounts for revenues generated by public lands—from grazing rights, mineral leases, sales of hats with antlers on them, whatever—when calculating their value vis a vis land transfers. The new rules stipulate that such revenues don't count, and so land transfers can be considered budget-neutral.

I think we can all get behind this approach to accounting. My own household has recently voted that buying books is budget-neutral, since knowledge is power and power is, clearly, money. But whatever dubious logic House Republicans employed to determine that revenue does not have value is not the issue here. The issue is that Zinke, a staunch opponent of land transfers throughout his legislative career, just voted to make it easier to transfer land.

Let's say your dad is a manufacturer of granite countertops and, through careful management of his golf game, has made you Vice President of Government Outreach for the Countertop Manufacturers Association. As a lobbyist for the CMA, you want to create jobs by drilling a hole in Mount Rushmore to excavate the rich granite from Teddy Roosevelt's head. The problem is that Mount Rushmore is owned by the federal government, which stole it from the Indians fair and square and now employs thousands of people to manage it.

It's hard to convince these people to let you drill a hole in Teddy Roosevelt. They don't care how many jobs it would create, because those jobs would be localized in South Dakota, and Mount Rushmore belongs to the whole nation. All it would take is a few representatives from California or some other place technically included in the United States to get uppity and scotch your whole plan.

But what if Mount Rushmore belonged to South Dakota? That would make it easier to sell lawmakers on your head-drilling plan because you'd only be dealing with, like, 50 guys. The CMA could just donate to all of their campaigns, at a fraction of what it would cost to swing a vote in the U.S. Congress. This is why business interests are so interested in transferring federal lands to the states: State government is easier to buy off.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

The problem is that land transfers tend to cost the federal government money, in the form of lost revenue, and saving money is what the Republican Party is supposed to be about. Hence last week's vote. What's striking is not that House Republicans thought they could change the facts of federal cash flow with the stroke of a pen, but that Zinke went along with it.

Just six months ago, Zinke resigned his position as a delegate to the Republican National Convention over the Republican platform's support for transferring federal lands. Now he's greasing the skids for exactly that. Even worse, he won't explain why. After declining requests for interviews from the Indy, Montana Public Radio and other outlets, his office released a six-word statement: "Ryan Zinke's position has not changed."

Not yet, it hasn't. In a few weeks, though, Zinke's position will change significantly—from lowly congressional representative of a scrappy but under-influential state to Secretary of the Interior. Assuming he gets confirmed, Commander Zinke will slip the surly bonds of electoral politics and join the executive branch. As head of Interior, he will oversee the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He will become the chief steward of Roosevelt's valuable head, to say nothing of his legacy.

Perhaps Zinke's position on land transfer has not changed. He might still oppose it. There's nothing in last week's rules package that expressly advocates selling federal land to the states. But the new rules make such sales a lot easier, and Zinke voted for them. It's almost as if public land is an issue with bipartisan appeal to the voters of Montana, and pretty soon he won't have to answer to those voters anymore.

He doesn't owe us anything, and there's not much more we can do for him from here. We did kind of launch his whole career, though—sending him to Helena and then to Washington, where his Navy service attracted a national audience to the stage we put him on. That doesn't mean he has to think one way about public lands for the rest of his life. It might mean we deserve an explanation for his apparent change of position, though. If he doesn't think he owes us that—well, that's the second-craziest system of accounting I've heard all week.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the untapped reserves in each president's head at combatblog.net.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Change? What change?"

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