On Wednesday, Congressman Bill Huizenga testified before the House Natural Resources Committee on his legislation to modernize the Endangered Species Act. Currently, no fee cap exists for litigation pertaining to the Endangered Species Act. Because of this, taxpayer dollars designated for species protection and restoration are being used to line the pockets of litigious trial attorneys and special interests. H.R. 3131, introduced by Congressman Huizenga, brings the hourly rate for awards of fees to prevailing attorneys to $125 per hour, which is in line with litigation involving veterans, small businesses, and federal benefit claims. The Endangered Species Litigation Reasonableness Act will protect endangered species and preserve taxpayer dollars.
Congressman Huizenga’s Testimony:
Thank you Chairman Bishop, Ranking Member Grijalva, and members of the Committee for holding this hearing. I had the privilege of being a part of a working group, a couple of years ago, that looked at the ESA and I can attest it does need reform.
My statement today is in support of common sense legislation that makes the Endangered Species Act consistent with current law in other areas of government litigation. H.R. 3131, the Endangered Species Litigation Reasonableness Act, reforms the ESA litigation process while enhancing wildlife preservation, improving government efficiency, and protecting taxpayer dollars.
For too long, litigating attorneys representing non-governmental entities have taken advantage of the Endangered Species Act, raking in millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded money. In many cases, attorney billing rates have climbed as high as $400, $500, or even $750 per hour, with hardworking American taxpayers left footing the bill. In times of tight fiscal budgets and escalating national debt, taxpayer dollars should be prioritized for the protection and recovery of species, not warrantless litigation.
Records from the Department of Justice confirm the exploitation and abuse of the Endangered Species Act by special interest groups– including at least two attorneys who have accrued upwards of $2 million in legal fees through ESA litigation. These exorbitant payouts – funded by the American taxpayer – only impede efforts to achieve the common goal of protecting species and habitats.
Now, how is this addressed in other areas of government litigation? Currently, the Equal Access to Justice Act limits the hourly rate for awards of fees to prevailing attorneys to $125 per hour in most circumstances. Unfortunately, no such fee cap currently exists for Endangered Species Act citizen suits. Quite simply, this bill seeks to correct the current Endangered Species Act anomaly that incentivizes attorneys to spend time in court needlessly arguing while earning inflated rates at the taxpayers’ expense.
This bill would ensure that all Americans who sue the federal government are entitled to the same reasonable limits when it comes to being awarded taxpayer-funded attorneys’ fees. Veterans, small businesses, and federal benefit recipients go through this right now and frankly Mr. Chairman if it’s good enough for our citizens, it should be good enough for our flora and fauna. It is past time to apply this sensible cap to ESA suits as well.
In fact, there has been discussion about this legislation somehow limiting access to the courts. There is no limit to access with this particular issue. This is a matter of stewardship of the resources of hardworking taxpayers. Rather than taxpayer dollars lining the pockets of trial attorneys or special interest groups that have made a business by suing the federal government, these scarce resources would be directed towards making the law more efficient and effective for both species and for people. This would save millions of dollars while not restricting access to the court system at all. If it truly is about protecting our flora and fauna, then this reasonable reimbursement rate should be just fine. If it’s about making money, well, I think you see the opposition.
Mr. Chairman, I strongly believe that this straightforward, legislation is a much needed common sense update to the ESA that makes the law work better for all parties. I would like to thank the Committee for scheduling this hearing on H.R. 3131. It is my hope that this Committee will soon take further action on this important legislation.