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.