Opportunities and Threats in Washington

October 1, 2013, Department, by Stacey Pine, Dave Tyahla

Recent developments in Congress are likely to have major impacts for park and recreation agencies in the coming months.You may have heard of the term “SWOT” when it comes business planning. It stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats” and refers to how you analyze and plan a project or venture. We’ll leave the exercise of finding and identifying any “strengths” and “weaknesses” among the current political workings of our nation’s capital to the scholarly experts. The focus of this message is to show how the situation in Washington does pose clear and present “threats” and “opportunities” for parks and recreation.    

In early September, Congress returned from its month-long recess faced with a pressing global policy issue, namely, the Syrian conflict. That issue, like many others, caused great political divide between the two chambers and the two parties, which resulted in much debate over whether the U.S. should intervene and use military force in Syria. As Congress grappled over what to do abroad, it also faced two domestic time bombs that needed to be addressed before the end of September: bridging the huge partisan divide over federal spending for the next fiscal year (which begins October 1st) and raising the nation’s debt limit. A failure to act on either measure would result in a government shutdown.  

At the time of this writing, a government shutdown had not been completely averted, but many Hill staff were optimistic that we would not see a shutdown in the near future. Putting the threat of a shutdown aside, there is still much work for Congress to do. Specifically, domestic policy issues, such as finalizing the FY 2014 spending bills, immigration, tax reform and reauthorization of the national agriculture program (known as the Farm Bill), demand attention and are indicative of a political climate where Congress has a lot of work to do, but regularly fails to gain the consensus necessary to address the important issues that face our country. While Congress may be in a hurry-up-and-do-nothing mode, when it does act, it does so very expediently — often passing bills in the 11th hour and with very limited debate. Additionally, the legislative process impressed upon us as children through the School House Rock “I’m Just a Bill” cartoon seems to have become the exception rather than the norm. Now, legislation is generally brokered and developed at the very top level of Congressional leadership and not through the typical process of introducing bills and letting committees of expertise discuss, debate and amend it (preferably improving the legislation in the process) prior to bringing it before the House and Senate for a vote.      

What does this mean for park and recreation advocates? Well, it means that no matter how frustrated we may be, we can’t become complacent and stop sending messages to our Congressional leaders about the needs that exist in our communities and the importance of providing funding for park and recreation projects in order to address those needs. The Constitution requires that Congress attend to and pass spending bills each year, and while the political process is often slower than molasses in January, authorizing legislation does eventually get passed. We can’t wait until the 11th hour to advocate for our priorities, as doing so gives the impression that funding for park and recreation programs is not important. And, if we wait until the 11th hour to have our voices heard, it will likely be too late, and parks and recreation will be omitted from the discussion.  

Currently, a real opportunity exists for parks and recreation relative to a bipartisan bill (H.R. 2727) introduced in July by Representatives David McKinley (R-WV), Gene Green (D-TX), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), which requires that a minimum of 40 percent of total LWCF annual appropriations be allocated to the State Assistance Program. Because this bill does not increase spending, it has a real chance of becoming law. In order for the bill to become law, however, we must garner a significant number of co-sponsors, and to accomplish that, we need NRPA members to weigh in with their members of Congress about the importance of this bill and explicitly ask them to sign on as co-sponsors. 

The FY 2014 spending bills, the municipal bond interest tax exemption and the transportation reauthorization are all issues that pose a significant threat to park and recreation funding and are issues for which park and recreation advocates can’t wait to have their voices heard. Specifically, the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee has threatened to zero out LWCF, which means no funding for the State Assistance Program. We can’t just be silent on the elimination of this capstone program. Yes, it is true that the LWCF State Assistance Program has received meager amounts of funding in the past few years, but the State Assistance Program remains the only federal program that provides funding specifically for state and local parks. Additionally, there is much at stake for park and recreation projects relative to tax reform. Serious discussions are taking place about eliminating or capping the municipal bond interest exemption. Such a move would significantly decrease the amount of municipal bond funding available for parks, recreation and many other projects. It’s important that members of Congress hear from you regarding the types of park and recreation projects that have been funded with municipal bonds in your community. 

A final issue in the “threat” category is the reauthorization of the transportation law, due to be reauthorized in September 2014. The current transportation law makes approximately $800 million available for bike, pedestrian and other types of trails. As the current law was being debated, there was fierce opposition to the inclusion of trail money, and all indications are that the opposition may be more fierce during the next reauthorization. While the bill is not due for reauthorization until next year, Congressional leaders are already starting to discuss components of the bill, and now is the time to act. Your members of Congress need to hear from you about the importance of trails to your community now — before the bill is drafted.

Admittedly, there are a lot of issues on which park and recreation advocates need to lend their voices. While phone calls and emails to your elected officials are always helpful, pictures and real-life experiences are worth a thousand words. All of you do incredible work every day, and your park and recreation agencies are truly changing the lives of everyone in your community. Don’t be afraid to show off a bit: Invite your member of Congress or his/her district staff to tour your park and recreation system to see for themselves the projects that have been funded by the State Assistance Program, municipal bonds or transportation money. If you can’t arrange a tour, then put some pictures together and send a packet that tells your story. In the end, what truly averts threats, delivers opportunities and provides funding for parks and recreation are the stories you tell.

Stacey Pine is NRPA’s Vice President of Government Affairs. Dave Tyahla is NRPA’s Senior Government Affairs Manager.