House Conservatives Won't Criticize Oregon Protests

Ammon Bundy arrives for a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. Ammon Bundy arrives for a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. Rick Bowmer/AP

House con­ser­vat­ives went out of their way Wed­nes­day to avoid cri­ti­ciz­ing the group of armed pro­test­ers who have taken over a build­ing in a fed­er­al wild­life refuge in Ore­gon, say­ing their mo­tiv­a­tions—if not their tac­tics—are widely shared.

“All that frus­tra­tion hap­pen­ing with the takeover of the land by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, with an un­just sen­tence, and you have just a frus­tra­tion that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is not listen­ing to them any­more,” said Rep. Raul Lab­rador. “And that’s what leads to what so far has been a peace­ful takeover of an aban­doned build­ing, by the way. The me­dia is so quick to cast as­per­sions on that group of people.”

Lab­rador ad­ded that many fail to un­der­stand the per­spect­ive of those in the West who see much of their states’ land con­trolled by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Mem­bers ad­dressed the is­sue dur­ing a monthly “Con­ver­sa­tions With Con­ser­vat­ives” event on Cap­it­ol Hill.

On Sat­urday, a group seized a build­ing at the Mal­heur Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuge, call­ing their ac­tions a re­sponse to land grabs by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and the five-year sen­tences handed down to two loc­al ranch­ers the gov­ern­ment has ac­cused of ar­son. The pair, Dwight and Steven Ham­mond, say they were merely sta­ging a con­trolled burn to pre­vent forest fires, but have turned them­selves in and dis­tanced them­selves from the protest groups’ ac­tions.

The group is led by Am­mon Bundy, the son of Nevada ranch­er Cliven Bundy, who in 2014 was in­volved in an armed stan­doff of his own, a clash with the Bur­eau of Land Man­age­ment over his graz­ing of cattle on fed­er­al land.

“You get people put in jail for five years for burn­ing 130 acres,” said Rep. Steve Pearce. “It looks like they were giv­en per­mis­sion to set the fire, and the agency can burn 300,000 acres and nobody is ac­count­able. … I’m not tak­ing a side on the Bundys; I think that’s a sideshow. But the Ham­monds are the ones that have been badly treated.”

Pearce also cited a wastewa­ter spill at a Col­or­ado mine last year caused by the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, echo­ing the mem­bers’ theme that the gov­ern­ment is out to get private cit­izens while re­fus­ing to pun­ish the far more dam­aging fail­ures of its own agen­cies. “One of the reas­ons people are frus­trated by what they see hap­pen­ing to the in­di­vidu­als in Ore­gon … is be­cause they see the Ham­monds go­ing to jail for five years and they see Lois Lern­er go­ing free,” said Rep. Jim Jordan. Lern­er is a former In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice of­ficer who resigned over al­leg­a­tions that the agency tar­geted con­ser­vat­ive groups for audits.

Oth­ers called for sen­ten­cing re­form to make sure the gov­ern­ment doesn’t ap­ply sen­tences like the Ham­monds’ to fu­ture of­fend­ers. “We have the power to fix it in Con­gress,” said Rep. Thomas Massie. “The prob­lem is the Eighth Amend­ment. The prob­lem is they’ve re­ceived—the Ham­monds—cruel and un­usu­al pun­ish­ment. … You can dis­agree with the meth­ods of protest­ing, but frankly we wouldn’t be talk­ing about this today if they wer­en’t protest­ing.”

Lab­rador, mean­while, called cov­er­age of the Ore­gon group a double stand­ard. “They’re try­ing to ex­press their frus­tra­tions, and I think civil dis­agree­ment is something that for the most part the lib­er­al me­dia used to stand up for,” he said.

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