Amid much discord in the United States Congress related to all matters fiscal, occasionally there emerge rare moments of cooperation. The Department of Defense (DOD) budget requires reauthorization during the lame duck session providing an opportunity for the Senate to attach policy proposals that would not likely pass were they stand alone pieces of legislation. On the one hand, the Pentagon seems like an awkward place to advance social or environmental policy. But, because its budget is so large, some policy ideas get their first trial at DOD.
The United States Senate unanimously passed a number of amendments to S.3254, the National Defense Authorization Act, related to critical minerals and public lands. Among them was a proposal by Senators Kyl, Risch, and Heller that urges the President to coordinate opportunities within a number of agencies to develop a sustainable supply of critical minerals. Helping ensure this supply is an amendment by Senators Casey and Begich that encourages DOD to recycle the rare earth elements found in the Department’s fluorescent light bulbs. Along the same lines, a number of Senators offered additional amendments concerning various forms of alternative and renewable energies the military should exploit.
Senators Tom Udall and Bingaman also offered an important amendment related to legacy uranium mining. The “legacy” refers to our nation’s Cold War efforts to produce, test, and stockpile large numbers of nuclear weapons in our nation’s arms race against the former Soviet Union. Many people working in the uranium mines or living in the Four Corners area of the country suffered exposure to radiation causing them severe health problems. In response, the Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to help make whole the families of the workers and residents of the region. The Udall/Bingaman amendment, among other things, extends the number of eligible affected workers who can file claims.
This is also an important legislative legacy for the retiring Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Bingaman. Another lasting legacy many chairmen in his position have sought is an omnibus public lands bill that designates wilderness areas, National Parks, and other protections for our nation’s precious public lands. For some time now, many of our allies have approached the potential for such a bill in the 112th Congress with some trepidation because it could contain undesirable giveaways of sacred areas to foreign mining companies. However, it appears that the smart money is betting that the Congress will run out of time to get this done.
So, in the absence of a public lands bill, Chairman Bingaman introduced an amendment to the DOD reauthorization that protects portions of the White Sands Missile Range and Fort Bliss in portions of New Mexico and Texas. The Senators agreed. Every one of them. Not everyone needs to agree on policy, but we should all expect that a spirit of comity to prevail as we look toward the 113th Congress. And it’s good to see consensus win when our nation’s defense is at stake.