In June, first-term U.S. Rep Andrew Clyde, R-Georgia, introduced a law that would undo what is likely the most successful wildlife conservation program in history.
Clyde’s bill, entitled the RETURN (Repealing Excise Tax on Unalienable Rights Now) Our Constitutional Rights Act, would repeal the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. Pittman-Robertson was proposed and supported by sportsmen and established an excise tax on firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment with the proceeds dedicated to wildlife management, conservation, and development of sport-shooting facilities.
In the past 85 years, the program has funneled more than $11 billion to state wildlife agencies, where the money is matched by the states (usually from hunting license fees). It’s a beautiful system, with users (hunters) taxing themselves to pay for wildlife management thereby allowing us to proudly claim that hunting is conservation. In Oregon, this dedicated funding source brings $15-20 million per year to wildlife conservation programs in the state.
Clyde’s bill to dismantle Pittman-Robertson has been unanimously criticized by a broad sweep of organizations including professional societies and large and small conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Pheasants Forever, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Even the National Rifle Association and National Shooting Sports Foundation have joined the chorus.
So why did Rep. Clyde propose such a destructive piece of legislation? Clyde is the owner of a gun and ammunition retail business, so perhaps he figures lower gun prices would mean more sales. Or is he anti-wildlife? Perhaps he has noble (if misdirected) motives when he states, “In case my Democrat colleagues forgot, the Bill of Rights enumerates rights to which the government cannot infringe. Unquestionably, infringement exists when the government taxes those rights to limit the people’s ability to exercise them.” An interesting argument, equating Pittman-Robertson excise taxes to a poll tax.
I suspect, however, that the real reason he introduced this bill was plain and simple polarizing politics. Right versus left, red versus blue, urban versus rural, us versus them. Shortly before the RETURN act was introduced, Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia, introduced a bill to impose a 1,000% excise tax on manufacturers, importers or producers of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. His bill was triggered by a string of mass shootings across the country, and the implied assumption is that increasing the cost of these weapons by a factor of 10 would mean there would be fewer people with access to them. An $1,800 assault rifle would cost $20,000, and it may very well be that gun retailer Clyde felt his own ox was being gored by Beyer’s bill.
So, the timing of the two bills is not coincidental, but rather tit-for-tat petty politics. A stick in the eye of the other guy.
To be clear, neither of these bills has much chance of becoming law. But they are good for stirring up the masses and reinforcing divisions in our society. Clyde’s bill has 54 co-sponsors, all Republican. Beyer’s bill has 41 co-sponsors, all Democrat. (Cliff Bentz, our representative in D.C., is not a cosponsor of either bill. Thank you, Rep. Bentz.)
Anyone who has studied wildlife conservation in the United States knows the significance of Pittman-Robertson and the sport fishing counterpart known as Dingell-Johnson. They are the cornerstone of state fish and wildlife management programs, and they work wonderfully. In part because of this funding to support the work of our state wildlife agency, the Blue Mountains support thriving elk herds that are famous across the country. Don’t believe me? Just try to draw one of the prized tags for a chance to hunt mature bull elk in the Mt. Emily, Mill Creek, or Wenaha units; there’s a long line of hunters in front of you.
Those that care about fish and wildlife conservation in our country should be disgusted with Clyde’s ham-handed attempt to strike back at those across the aisle, using wildlife conservation as a pawn in his perverse political (and perhaps personal financial) game.
We’ve all seen enough entrenchment of political divisions in American society. When people stake out extreme positions the opportunity for meaningful conversation ends, threatening our very system of government. We deserve, and should demand, better from our elected officials and should expect our lawmakers to be part of a solution instead of stirring and dividing us.
The RETURN act doesn’t stand a chance of becoming law but does show the worst of the state of our democracy circa 2022. Lawmakers who spend time and energy on this type of effort should also be returned from whence they came.