LETTER FROM WASHINGTON  |  DANA WILKIE
Hunter's got a full plate

August 28, 2006

WASHINGTON – Duncan Hunter's House Armed Services Committee will be a pivotal place in coming weeks – at least it will be if you're a hunter, a military veteran, a whistle-blower, a good-government type or a certain congresswoman from California's central coast.

Such are the people and groups with a stake in the defense authorization bill over which Hunter, as committee chairman, has authority.

The House and Senate have passed different versions of the bill, which means a handful of lawmakers from each chamber must put their heads together to reconcile the two pieces of legislation. In Washington, the process is known as a conference committee, and typically it is conducted behind closed doors.

A lot will be going on behind those doors.

One topic will be Santa Rosa Island, that part of Channel Islands National Park where Roosevelt elk and mule deer make for good trophy hunting. Hunter, an avid hunter, slipped a plan into the defense authorization bill that would void a court settlement that ends hunting on the island by 2011.

The plan from Hunter, an El Cajon Republican, would allow hunting to continue indefinitely for disabled veterans and other military types, though Hunter maintains that hikers, bikers and others – not just those toting guns – still could enjoy the island if hunting continues.

THUMBS DOWN FROM VETS GROUP

Now we learn that at least one significant group of veterans doesn't like the idea.

In a recent letter to Rep. Vic Snyder, the Arkansas Democrat who sits on Armed Services and on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, the Paralyzed Veterans of America said that after a visit to the island, “it is our opinion that the numerous obstacles inherent to the island – including ingress and egress, logistics, personal safety and cost – far outweigh the possible, limited benefit it could provide” for hunting.

Rep. Lois Capps, the Democrat whose district includes the island, seized on the letter as evidence that the congressman need proceed no further in his Santa Rosa Island hunting quest.

“I appreciate the honest assessment from the (group) about hunting on Santa Rosa Island,” said Capps, who wants to end “the lucrative private hunting operation . . . so the public can enjoy full, year-round access to their national park.”

Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said the congressman hopes to talk soon with the veterans group “to better understand their concerns.”

“The island won't be forced on any organization that doesn't want it, or feels it won't benefit from the recreational opportunities offered,” said Kasper, although that doesn't mean Hunter is dropping his plan from the authorization bill.

Another topic during the conference negotiations will be an anti-corruption bill that passed the Senate this summer but whose prospects are uncertain because of Justice Department opposition.

TAKING UP WHISTLE-BLOWING

Backers of the bill say it restores the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects public employees from reprisals when they speak out against government corruption. Proponents say a Supreme Court ruling in May eroded the act's protections by weakening free-speech rights of government workers subjected to retaliation when they criticize aspects of their jobs.

The Senate unanimously agreed to put the plan into its version of the defense authorization bill. The House-passed version does not include it. Again, lawmakers must work out the differences in their conference committee.

Good-government advocates say the fate of the bill rests with Hunter.

“Duncan Hunter can play the deciding role for this legislation,” said Adam Miles, a spokesman for the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower advocacy group in Washington. “If he backs it, it will pass. But if he sides with the Justice Department, it's going to be a major uphill struggle to make it happen.”

Behind the plan are House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, and Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, the committee's top Democrat. Both recently wrote Hunter urging his support for the bill.

As for Hunter's thoughts on the matter? Kasper said, “Negotiations related to the conference process are not disclosed publicly.”

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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