This vote was on the resolution or “rule” setting the terms for debating the Federal Land Assistance Management and Enhancement (“FLAME”) Act. The FLAME Act established a dedicated fund for emergency wild land fire suppression activities, separate from other appropriated fire-fighting funding. As with most major bills the House considers, it first had to approve a rule for it, before the House could begin debate on the measure. The rule for the FLAME Act limited the number of amendments that could be offered. Many Republicans opposed that limitation, even though they favored the substance of the legislation.
The new fund established by the Act was designed to be available when other appropriated funds run out, saving federal agencies from having to dip into non fire-related programs. The bill authorized the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to use money from this new fund only after making a specific declaration that a fire was large enough and dangerous enough to warrant such action. The bill also required the Forest Service to send Congress a comprehensive strategy for combating wildfires that addressed shortcomings that had been identified by the Government Accountability Office and the Agriculture Department's Inspector General.
Rep. Polis (D-CO), speaking in support of the rule and the underlying legislation, noted the rapidly rising cost of fighting wildfires, which used 46 percent of the Forest Service's budget in 2008 compared to 13 percent in 1991. He argued: “Our policy needs to make sure that, as these fires grow in scope and number, we are not forced to make hard choices between money and safety. . . By establishing the FLAME fund, this bill separates the increasing costs of fighting fires from the annual budget that agencies rely on for maintenance and mitigation.” Polis also claimed “this bill has gained the support of every environmentally conscious constituency, from land management agencies to environmental and community leaders to local governments.”
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL) expressed the Republican opposition to the terms of the rule that limited the number of amendments that could be offered during the debate of the bill. He said: “Although I support the underlying legislation . . . Members in the minority have expressed their concern that the legislation only addresses one aspect of the problem, the suppression funding side, without providing real relief and dealing with the underlying problem to help prevent wildfires. . . . . Unfortunately, in what is becoming quite a familiar pattern, the House majority leadership and the majority on the Rules Committee continue to block an open debate even on noncontroversial legislation. . . the majority is apparently so afraid of losing control of the debate that even on something with obvious consensus support the majority blocks Members from (offering amendments).”
Rep. Hastings (R-WA) argued that “there is an issue of contention . . . on fire prevention (and) apparently there are objections from the extreme environmental lobby with regard to fire prevention being able to be debated. And the majority party, listening to that extreme lobby, has (under the terms of the rule) not allowed that issue of contention which should be brought before this floor to be even debated.” Rep. Polis (D-CO) countered the Republican argument by noting that, of the 16 requests for amendments to be offered that were germane under House procedures, 13 were made in order under the rule, “and indeed five of those were by Republican sponsors.”
The rule was approved by a vote of 248-175 along almost straight party lines. All 248 “aye” votes were cast by Democrats. Two other Democrats joined one hundred and seventy-three Republicans in voting nay. As a result, the rule was approved and the House was able to move to debate the FLAME Act.