Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republican lawmakers are breaking with the White House on its plan to make cuts to a conservation job training program and lay off more than 1,000 federal workers.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including a dozen GOP members, sent a letter Wednesday urging Cabinet members not to shutter a third of the nation’s Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, which train underprivileged youth in jobs that help protect America’s public lands.
McConnell sent a letter of his own the same day, noting the plan could cost 100 Kentuckians their jobs.
The White House has said it wants to streamline the program and make it cheaper. But those goals aren’t shared by the Republicans who will have to explain to constituents why their own centers are shutting down. They called the White House’s decision to pursue the closures without congressional approval or input “troubling.”
“These centers not only help support these underserved youth and young adults with invaluable job training, but they also provide essential capacity for the U.S. Forest Service to fulfill its mission and provide economic opportunities in rural areas,” the group wrote.
The letter is signed by 51 members of Congress and addressed to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
In his own letter to the same officials, McConnell said the program plays “an important role” in training young people, particularly in “rural and economically depressed areas.”
The White House plan, first reported by HuffPost, would transfer control of the program from the Agriculture Department to the Labor Department, cutting 1,065 federal jobs and at least eight centers in the process. The work at centers that don’t get axed could be contracted out, effectively privatizing them.
Students enrolled in CCC programs are trained in wildland firefighting, forestry and disaster recovery, and often work on public lands in the wake of disasters. Each year federal employees at the centers train nearly 4,000 young adults, most of them from low-income backgrounds. The program has been around since 1964.
In 2017 alone, students from the centers provided approximately 450,000 hours of wildfire response, and 5,000 hours responding in communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey, according to the letter. Many labor unions view the program as a talent pipeline feeding into their own apprenticeship systems.
It’s not hard to see why President Donald Trump is running into trouble with his own party on this one. The training centers are all in rural areas, mostly in the South and West, and the centers slated to close tend to be in purple or red states: Montana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Virginia, Washington, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oregon.
The National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents workers at the training centers, has been pressuring lawmakers to intervene. Steve Lenkart, the group’s director, said he was “not surprised” by the GOP pushback.
“These centers are disproportionately located in conservative-leaning districts and states,” Lenkart said in a statement to HuffPost. “No member of Congress, regardless of political affiliation, wants to see small towns in their districts and states decimated by the closure of a federal facility.”
The Montana delegation, including GOP Sen. Steve Daines, has already succeeded in getting the Anaconda Job Corps Center in western Montana pulled from the chopping block. Daines said the decision came after he phoned Trump to voice his disapproval.
“Keeping these job corps open is critical for Montana,” a spokeswoman for the senator wrote in an email to HuffPost. “Hundreds of people are employed by the training centers in Montana, in addition to so many young Montanans who receive invaluable training through these programs.”
Daines and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) joined other senators this week in introducing legislation to block the administration from closing other sites. Another Republican, Rep. Dan Newhouse (Wash.), offered an amendment to the 2020 agricultural appropriations bill this week that would block federal funds from being used to close or transfer job center operations to the Labor Department.
“These 25 centers provide critical support to rural communities in maintaining public lands, actively managing our nation’s forests and helping restore communities harmed by catastrophic wildfires,” he said during a congressional hearing Tuesday.
Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, has come out in support of Newhouse’s effort to stop the proposed cuts. Rogers’ district in southern Kentucky includes the Pine Knot Job Corps Center, which is on the list of those to be closed. Rogers called the programs “vital.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and one of the 37 Democrats to sign Wednesday’s letter, said in an email to HuffPost that the Forest Service plan “is an especially dramatic example of how the Trump administration disproportionately hurts low-income Americans, especially those living in rural areas that supported the president.”
Trump’s walk-back on cutting the Anaconda center brings to mind another unpopular policy pursued by the White House, the effort to open nearly all offshore waters to oil and gas development.
In that case, there was a similar outcry from Republicans in Florida, leading the administration to unofficially exempt the state from the policy. Lawmakers from other states up and down the East and West coasts, both Republicans and Democrats, subsequently demanded that their offshore waters also be taken off the table.
This story has been updated to include McConnell’s letter and comment from the National Federation of Federal Employees, as well as a statement from Grijalva.