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Monday, October 2, 2023
Oct. 2, 2023

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Jayne: Perez ties up issue’s loose end

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

Weeks before she is sworn into office, congresswoman-to-be Marie Gluesenkamp Perez has her first legislative victory — sort of.

In the process, she has provided a glimmer of how government is supposed to function, worked with members of both parties for the benefit of Skamania County, and bucked advice from some fellow Democrats. The result is a story that offers some insight into the machinations of the behemoth that is the federal government.

That story begins with the Wind River Nursery, a piece of federal land in Skamania County that for decades was used to grow seedlings for the replanting of forests. Considering that about 80 percent of the county rests within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and another 18 percent is state-owned and privately-owned forests, having a nearby nursery makes sense.

But since the federal government closed that nursery in the 1990s — taking about 300 jobs — the site has been largely unused. That can be problematic for a county with precious few revenue-generating resources. Skamania County officials have struggled to pay their employees, support their schools and provide services for their 12,000 or so residents.

It is a unique situation by dint of unique circumstances. Skamania County is 2½ times the size of Clark County but has fewer people than Ridgefield.

So, county officials over the years have sought a transfer of the land to county control. They obtained 187 acres from the U.S. Forest Service in 2000, but the remaining 23.4 acres presented vast potential. As The Columbian reported this year, county officials project it could generate $600,000 annually to feed development projects, expand the water system and create jobs.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has been working on the issue, and the Wind River Administrative Site Conveyance Act was passed unanimously by the U.S. House in July. But it had stalled in the Senate, and Herrera Beutler’s quest for reelection ended in the primary. Perez ended up being elected to Congress.

“I met with Jaime when it became clear I was going to win,” Perez said, “and this was one of the issues that came up as unfinished business.”

With the legislation languishing, she called Sen. Maria Cantwell. It’s not clear how a newly elected representative pitches an idea to a senator who has been in office for 22 years, but Perez was encouraged by the response. Cantwell got the land transfer included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that passed the Senate last week.

“There were members of my party that urged me not to make that call,” Perez said. “They wanted me to wait; this would be an easy win for me, for a freshman legislator.”

In other words, scorekeeping is more important to some members of Congress than simply doing the right thing. Herrera Beutler started the process and Perez saw it through, regardless of who gets the credit.

“This is really one of those rare things that makes sense for all the players,” Perez said.

It also is one of those things that, in a roundabout way, points out the shortcomings of a Congress more focused on sound bites than legislation. It is not, as Perez puts it, “one of those things that are going to get you invited on Fox News; a lot of people are pursuing that.”

And Washington, D.C., is full of specious pursuits.

“Some people spend their time trying to become party insiders or climbing the committee ladder. You could go to three receptions every night,” she said. “Congress won’t change until normal people me show up and start changing things.”

Perez expects to land on the Agriculture Committee and the Small Business Committee after she is sworn in on Jan. 3. She also is hoping for a seat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Regardless of which committees she serves, a freshman representative is not going to change the theatrical culture of Washington, D.C. But she just might effectively represent our district.