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Wednesday, September 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Congress can’t find energy to act

A bipartisan energy reform bill that looked like it might buck the do-nothing image of Congress ended up reinforcing it.

Legislation crammed with overdue action on wildfire funding, dam relicensing, energy efficiency, Western drought and conservation died a quiet death when House Speaker Paul Ryan declared last week that House-Senate negotiators couldn’t reach agreement. Time’s up, he said.

Congress will now adjourn for the holidays, and members will have to start all over when a new Congress convenes in January. Two years of work down the drain.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, worked together on the Senate bill, and they urged the House to reconsider, but to no avail.

“If we miss this opportunity now, we are not likely to have another one next year. Our House colleagues should be less concerned about going home this week and more concerned about giving communities the tools they need to deal with wildfire problems and other key issues,” Cantwell said.

In July, the Senate and House agreed to conferences aimed at sorting out the differences in their versions of the bill. Western senators are now accusing House leaders of running out the clock.

Whatever the case, some important reforms have been shelved. And once again, the public is left to wonder whether Congress is hopelessly dysfunctional.

For the past two summers, politicians, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, have toured Northwest fires and spotlighted the issue of dwindling firefighting resources. The U.S. Forest Service has had to shift funds from the prevention part of its operation to fight increasingly catastrophic fires.

In 1994, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its budget fighting fires. Twenty years later, it was 42 percent. In 2015, the Forest Service moved $700 million to fire suppression, which drained accounts needed to make the forests healthier and less susceptible to fires.

Cantwell and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers both said something must be done about this unproductive practice of “fire borrowing.” A funding fix was in the energy bill, but now the Forest Service will probably head into the next wildfire season with the same problem.

McMorris Rodgers and Cantwell also agree on the concept of “early action,” where utilities would get credit for improvements they’ve made to dams under their current license as they head into the relicensing process, which can take up to 10 years. The current policy creates an incentive for utilities to delay improvements because they won’t get credit.

A fix was in the energy bill.

Broad reform of national energy policy is needed to reflect the challenges presented by shifting energy markets, climate change and inefficiencies that unnecessarily sap resources.

But, once again, Congress ended up doing nothing.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on “Opinion.”

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