U.S. Sen. Jim Risch’s decision to hold up an omnibus spending bill last week over the renaming of an Idaho wilderness was widely panned as a petty extension of his rivalry with former Gov. Cecil Andrus.
But in his office’s first statement since the March 22 late-night floor action, a Risch spokeswoman suggested Andrus might have understood the move — snarling a measure needed to avert a government shutdown right as Congress planned to leave town on a break.
“Gov. Andrus was always looking out for Idahoans and would have wanted them to have a voice,” Kaylin Minton, Risch’s press secretary, said Wednesday.
In this case, that’s a voice on naming the almost-3-year-old White Clouds Wilderness after Andrus, a prominent Democrat and renowned governor whose early political career included blocking an open-pit mine planned for the area.
Risch, a Republican, fought with Andrus in the late 1980s over education, taxes and political power. The tussle ended with Risch losing his state Senate seat for a time, and Andrus continued to needle Risch in public for decades.
Andrus died last August, prompting talk of naming the wilderness in his honor. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, also an Idaho Republican, carried a bill to change the name. But Risch, a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, told Simpson in September he would oppose the move.
Simpson had already been through this once, in 2010, with an earlier attempt to create the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness that Risch blocked.
“I had to go another route,” Simpson told the Statesman this week.
So Simpson, a House Appropriations subcommittee chairman, added the measure to the omnibus spending bill, getting the chairs and ranking committee members of the relevant House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees to sign off under congressional rules. He didn’t tell Risch, nor fellow Sen. Mike Crapo, of his plan to use the appropriations process.
“Sen. Risch objected to the use of the controversial and unorthodox procedure known as a ‘midnight airdrop,’ burying a provision in a 2,000-plus-page spending bill shortly before its passage,” Minton said. “This process deprived all Idahoans the ability to hear, express an opinion, or in any way participate in the renaming of the White Clouds regardless of the merit.”
A bill with big Idaho benefits
Simpson viewed his move — and the spending bill as a whole — much more favorably. And the package represents one of his most successful legislative achievements.
His efforts overcame opposition to treating wildfires like other disasters, providing separate money to fight them and ending the need for public lands agencies to raid other parts of their budgets.
He also got the largest budget ever for the Idaho National Laboratory, which performs nuclear and other energy and security research in eastern Idaho. The bill reauthorized the Secure Rural Schools program that funds counties and schools across the rural West, and provided full funding to local governments for payments in lieu of taxes, important for Idaho counties with large percentages of federal land.
The bill gave ranchers $1 million to compensate for wolf attacks on livestock, limited new Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on agriculture and included lots of money for Idaho’s three universities for biomedical research.
Most of all, it provided the largest boost to military spending in 15 years, Simpson said. The bill eliminated budget caps in place since 2011.
The result of the cuts, Simpson said, was that only five of 58 brigade combat teams are ready to fight tonight and half of the Navy’s plane’s can’t fly. “What we did for the military was the most important thing we did,” he said.
To get that done, Republicans also had to lift the caps on domestic spending to get Democratic votes, Simpson said. That is what made it possible to get the Idaho lab, the rural schools and other programs like funding for the Dubois Sheep Station, a research facility in eastern Idaho that is the main economic base for the tiny town.
Will Whelan, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy of Idaho, was closely watching the negotiations on the fire funding fix. He said Crapo and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden were pushing for that measure on the Senate side.
“I was hearing as late as Tuesday (March 20) that the measure was in trouble,” Whelan said. “We wouldn’t have prevailed in the early hours of Wednesday if Simpson hadn’t been directly engaged.”
What set Simpson apart from the rest of Idaho’s delegation is that after he had gotten all those items, he voted for the measure.
Risch, of course, did not vote for it. Crapo and Simpson’s fellow Congressman Raul Labrador both voted against the bill because they didn’t like what it meant for the deficit and future spending.
“I could not in good conscience vote for a bill that puts our economy at risk and jeopardizes our children’s future,” Labrador said in a tweet.
Crapo didn’t like that the measure lifted the bipartisan spending caps and did not include budget reforms, said his spokesman, Robert Sumner.
“Rushing through a spending package denies members of Congress a real opportunity to debate and consider how to prioritize important investments and programs.,” Sumner said. “As a member of the Budget Committee, he continues to advocate for critical fiscal reforms.”
Simpson, who served as House speaker in Idaho when Risch was Senate pro tem, said the pair have had many disagreements, including Risch’s 2010 surprise turnabout on the Boulder-White Clouds. The congressman said he expects they will get past this dispute as well.
Meanwhile, the headlines have focused on Risch.
Addressing the Andrus rivalry, Minton said Risch has only made one public statement about the former governor in the last 25 years and it was upon Andrus’ death in 2017.
“Gov. Andrus was one of the most accomplished, successful and masterful political figures I have worked with,” Risch said at that time. “He had the judgment and strength to take matters where he wanted them to go. Vicki and I extend our condolences to Carol and the Andrus family — they are in our prayers.”
Risch “meant that when it was said,” Minton said, “and his feelings have not changed.”