Rep. Young nabs Alaska exemption from Forest Service rule in House farm bill

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. House sparred over whether and when to pass the latest iteration of the massive farm bill, Alaska Congressman Don Young made a deal.

Late Thursday, Young, a Republican, secured two amendments that moved his vote on the larger package from a "maybe" to a "yes": an Alaska exemption from a rule that limits logging in the Tongass National Forest, and another that ensures Alaska Native populations can use donations of traditional food sources as part of public assistance foods.

[Measure in Congress could cut into Alaska food benefits with work requirements]

In a flurry of floor activity, Young flipped three votes from "no" to "yes," squeezing out passage for his roadless rule amendment by a vote of 208-207.

Ultimately, the Republicans' farm bill went down Friday by a vote of 198-213, after party leaders could not persuade any Democrats or enough Republicans to vote in favor.

[In blow to GOP, House fails to pass massive farm bill in face of conservative showdown]

But a procedural move employed by House Speaker Paul Ryan allows him to pick the bill back up next week. That means this isn't the end for the farm bill, or for Young's amendments.

The farm bill manages a wide range of agricultural programs and subsidies, and is updated about every five years. The current iteration expires later this year, so Congress must come to some resolution by September.

What was supposed to be a two-minute House vote on Young's amendments stretched well past the 10-minute mark as leaders allowed Young to scour the aisles looking for votes to turn. When time was technically up, the vote tally read 204 in favor, 210 against, with 14 members not voting.

But Young didn't rest there. One more "yes" vote came in, and the congressman persuaded three others to switch their initial votes. As soon as the tally ticked over 208 yes and 207 no, the chair called it.

Young convinced three lawmakers to change their votes: Ryan Costello, R-Penn.; Marcy Kaptor, D-Ohio; and a third who remained unidentified. Young was not available to clarify who it was.

The Forest Service's roadless rule is designed to protect old-growth trees and sensitive habitats. Alaska's congressional delegation has railed against it since it was issued in the final days of the Clinton administration in 2001.

Though the courts have disagreed, Young and other Alaska Republican lawmakers have argued that Alaska should be exempt and that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act protects plenty of state land from logging and development.

On the House floor Thursday, Young argued that 96 percent of the Tongass National Forest and 99 percent of the Chugach National Forest are protected by ANILCA and their forest management plans.

"Exempting Alaska from the roadless rule will ensure that what is left of the timber industry in Southeast Alaska can survive," Young said on the House floor.

Young also sponsored an amendment that passed by a voice vote: a repeat of a provision that passed in the 2014 farm bill allowing for subsistence donations for food assistance programs for rural Alaska Natives.

Food assistance, rather than agricultural subsidies, were one of the major sticking points of the bill that kept most Democrats and about a dozen moderate Republicans from voting in favor of the bill.

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While its nominal purpose is agricultural programs, 80 percent of the farm bill's funding goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known to many by its former name, "food stamps."

The bill would expand work requirements for many people receiving SNAP benefits. Young said via his spokesperson last week that he had concerns about the SNAP work requirements and what they could mean for remote areas of Alaska, where work opportunities can be scarce.

But those concerns were not enough to make Young a "no" vote on the bill once he secured his amendments.

Conservative House Republicans ultimately tanked the farm bill over their immigration priorities, but Ryan made a motion to reconsider, and the House could try and vote on it again next week. It would then move to the Senate for approval, or the Senate could pass its own farm bill and the two bills would be married in a bicameral conference committee.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.

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