Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) today filed an amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution that would require Congress to fully fund the U.S. Forest Service’s cash-strapped wildfire management account as catastrophic wildfires grow in frequency and intensity.
This year, the cost of the Forest Service’s wildfire suppression operations has exceeded $2 billion, making 2017 the most expensive wildfire year on record. According to the Forest Service, more than 55 percent of the agency’s budget is consumed by suppression operations, compared to just 15 percent 20 years ago. The amendment would allow senators to invoke a budget point of order against the Interior Appropriations Bill if it fails to provide sufficient funding for wildfire suppression using the federal government’s most accurate wildfire budget forecast, called the FLAME Act estimate.
Congress typically appropriates funds for wildfire suppression based on a 10-year rolling average of historic suppression obligations, which has not kept pace with the ballooning costs of wildfires. Twelve of the past 16 fiscal years saw more than $8 billion in emergency appropriations for the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. This emergency funding arrives later in a wildfire season and not before the agency is forced to cannibalize non-wildfire program accounts to pay for wildfires—a practice known as “fire borrowing.”
“Year after year, Congress wrestles over how to fully fund Forest Service wildfire operations,” said Senator McCain. “The hard truth is that the Forest Service has become the Fire Service, and we have yet to effectively address fire-borrowing or reduce hazardous fuels in order to lower the cost of fighting wildfires. This amendment would incentivize appropriators and the authorizing committees to compromise on a long-overdue solution to prevent and fight wildfires, which continue to devastate communities in Arizona, California, and across the arid West.”
“We cannot afford to keep kicking the can down the road on fire-borrowing,” said Senator Flake. “The time has come for a fiscally responsible solution to give the USFS assurances that unanticipated wildfire costs will not erode the service’s other important functions.”
Senator John McCain also introduced several other amendments to the Senate Budget Resolution:
Prioritizing Support for the Military: This amendment would allow a budget point of order against any increases to the Budget Control Act spending caps if increases to defense and non-defense are equal.
Addressing Catastrophic Wildfire: This amendment would require Congress to fully fund the U.S. Forest Service’s cash-strapped wildfire management account as catastrophic wildfires grow in frequency and intensity. This year, the cost of Forest Service’s wildfire suppression operations has exceeded $2 billion, making 2017 the most expensive wildfire year on record. According to the Forest Service, more than 55 percent of the agency’s budget is consumed by suppression operations compared to 15 percent just 20 years ago. This amendment would allow senators to invoke a budget point of order against the Interior Appropriations Bill if it fails to provide sufficient funding for wildfire suppression using the federal government’s most accurate wildfire budget forecast, called the FLAME Act estimate.
Expanding School Choice in Indian Country: This amendment would seek to expand education opportunities for Native American children enrolled in Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools, which, despite their high cost, include some of the most underperforming schools in the nation. The BIE has long been plagued by poor performance, low test scores, and low graduation rates despite spending an estimated $15,000 per student – higher than the national average per person expenditure rate. Today, roughly half of BIE students do not graduate and test scores trail by double digits compared to Native American peers attending non-BIE schools. The BIE was recently listed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as one of the agencies at “high risk” for waste, fraud and abuse. For example, GAO found that one BIE school lost $1.2 million in federal funds that were illegally transferred to an offshore account.
Addressing the National Park Service Maintenance Backlog: This amendment would address the National Park Service (NPS) maintenance backlog. As of fiscal year 2017, the NPS faces $11.3 billion in deferred maintenance projects. Crown jewel units like Grand Canyon National Park need $353 million in repairs to water infrastructure, facilities, trails, and other assets that are key to ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience for its five million annual visitors.
Repealing the Duplicative USDA Catfish Inspection Office: This amendment would take an important step toward ending the duplicative and costly U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Catfish Inspection Office and return all catfish inspections back to the FDA.
Expanding Broadband to Rural America: This amendment would seek to improve broadband access in rural America. An estimated 50 percent of rural communities lack access to high-speed internet, compared with eight percent of urban areas. Roughly 60 percent of tribal lands are unable to access internet at all. The lack of broadband in rural communities not only impacts individuals, but also schools, hospitals, and first responders. Congress should prioritize resources by working with state, local, and federal officials to expand broadband to our rural constituents in underserved areas of rural America.
Combatting the Opioid Crisis: This amendment would make it a priority to stem the flood of opioids into our communities, which is one of the main drivers of veteran suicide.
Prioritizing Veterans Choice: This amendment would prioritize the health care needs of veterans by strengthening the Veterans Choice Program and ensuring that veterans continue to have access to quality and timely health care in their communities.
Improving VA Financial Management: This amendment would achieve cost-savings by combining the two separate contracted community care networks purchased by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The potential combination of these two networks would create efficiencies, save money, enhance capacity and standardize quality of care. Additionally, this amendment would curb improper payments associated with the claims process at the VA by moving to a third party claims process – similar to both Centers for Medicare/Medicaid (CMS) and DOD. The VA’s improper payments amounted to $5 billion and $5.5 billion in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Allowing the Safe Importation of Medication from Canada: This amendment would provide Americans with much-needed relief from skyrocketing prescription drug costs by allowing consumers to safely import prescription medication from Canada.