Fifteen hunting and conservation organizations including the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and the National Wild Turkey Federation have denounced President Obama's nomination of an avowed anti-hunter to a high-level administration position.
The nomination of longtime attorney and law professor Cass Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has drawn harsh scorn and a concerted grassroots effort to block the appointment through calls and emails to Senate leaders. The OIRA has authority over federal regulations, including those of the Department of the Interior and its U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Agriculture.
Sunstein has stated that animals should be allowed to sue humans in court and hunting should be banned completely if its only purpose is for sport.
In a letter to its members this week, the NWTF termed Sunstein "a rabid supporter of animal rights" and urged immediate action to let congressional House and Senate members know Sunstein's nomination should not be approved. It was a rare show of public retribution in the political arena for the organization, which typically does not comment so vigorously on such issues.
"Views such as this raise serious concern about the agenda Sunstein will carry with him into this position if he is confirmed by the Senate," the NWTF's letter stated. "This is why it is crucial that your two U.S. Senators vote NOT to confirm Sunstein as the head of the OIRA.
"As an avid outdoorsman or outdoorswoman, you know that hunters and anglers are the greatest supporters of conservation, and that the $76 billion outdoorsmen spend on their sport annually not only supports wildlife conservation, but also bolsters jobs and local economies."
Organizations signing the letter included Conservation Force, Dallas Safari Club, Fur Takers of America, Houston Safari Club, Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America, Mule Deer Foundation, National Shooting Sports Foundation, National Trappers' Association, National Wild Turkey Federation, Pope and Young Club, Shikar Safari Club, Texas Wildlife Association, U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, Whitetails Unlimited, Inc. and the Wild Sheep Foundation.
Organizations are using their Web sites and social media to publicize the nomination and effort to block it. The NWTF has a huge photo of Sunstein and headline on its rotating front page, and the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance has a static "Block the Czar" banner with his photo at the top of its site.
'Junkyard dog' started barking
Greg Lawson, communications director with the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, said the USSA contacted organizations with the American Wildlife Conservation Partners with an "open-ended invitation" to urge sportsmen to contact congressional leaders.
Of the 39 organizations in the partnership, 14 joined the USSA. It was a rare showing of solidarity from some organizations, such as the NWTF, that typically do not often speak out publicly on political matters.
"We laid out the case he's not good for sportsmen or hunting, has an extensive animal rights record and we reached out to those organizations," Lawson said. "Some of the big guys (groups) did not want to be involved in this. I think it's accurate to say there is a view this guy will get through (the nomination process), and maybe they would rather save some of their shots for other issues down the road. I think there's a belief by some of them if you make a stand right now, what's the point?
"But the USSA, and I mean this in the best of terms, we're sort of the junkyard dogs and are aggressive as we can be on hunting issues. In regard to hunting, fishing and trapping issues, we're pretty adamant. We knew, and know, chances are he may be voted on as early as next Wednesday."
Dr. James Earl Kennamer, chief conservation officer with the NWTF, said the organization doesn't often jump into the political fray. It plans to send a letter to President Obama "thanking him for appointing Sam Hamilton to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sam is a true outdoorsman and is going to bring great leadership to that position."
But the nomination of Sunstein and his long-held views were too much for the NWTF to ignore.
"We don't like to play the politics and don't like to say we don't support certain people," Kennamer said. "But when you have a person like this who could be head of OIRA … those things concern us.
Kennamer said the hunting community doesn't "want someone with that kind of power putting their personal edicts into public regulations."
He also noted Sunstein's anti-hunting views and said the idea of allowing animals to sue humans "Is so bi-polar to what we stand far, and I think this is a reason you're seeing the outcry. It's taking things too far."
Vote could come soon
Congressional leaders return to Washington on Tuesday following their annual August recess. Lawson said the two "holds" put on Sunstein's nomination by Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and John Cornyn of Texas "gummed it up enough" to keep a Senate vote from occurring before the recess.
But President Obama's nominations for most of his top positions, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, were approved relatively fast and with minimal objection (other than Sotomayor) by the Senate. Lawson believes the Senate could move quickly on Sunstein's nomination as well.
"This actually has been one that's most difficult (for Obama) but we believe it could be on the agenda as soon as they get back," he said. "It was held twice by Senators Chambliss and Cornyn, and if any other senator puts a hold on it then it will need 60 votes to break the hold."
The death of Sen. Ted Kennedy gives Democrats 59 votes, but Lawson said a Republican could switch over to nudge the decision. That's one reason the USSA and other organizations are encouraging sportsmen to contact their senators.
"There still is a chance and I liken it to climbing a steep mountain," he said. "It probably won't be stopped, but we're getting good feedback from sportsmen groups that he could not be voted on. If there are enough (in the Senate) who don't want him in the position, I don't believe it would be voted down but instead would be tied up and just go away."
Lawson said representatives from the USSA and other groups would be talking with Senators as much as possible before the vote. Kennamer said Sunstein's name "came out of the blue," as NWTF officials don't follow anti-hunting or animal-rights movements as fiercely as other organizations such as the USSA.
Kennamer believes Sunstein's nomination also could be approved, but is hopeful it will not or that it could be further pushed to the back burner due to the public's clamor about the health care reform issue.
Either way, he added, "We can't not make our voice heard to the Administration."
Possible Supreme Court nod?
Another angle Lawson noted is Sunstein's mention as a possible Supreme Court nominee should current Justice John Paul Stevens retire after the 2010-11 term.
Stevens, who is 89, has hired just one law clerk for the Supreme Court term that begins in October 2010. Justices typically hire four or five clerks, or more, at least a year prior to the next term. Speculation began about whether he would retire after the term ends in 2011 and who might be among those tapped to replace him.
Sunstein was named in a Chicago Tribune story this week as a possible nominee. He served as a clerk to Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in 1979-80 after a year as a clerk with the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Sunstein's law career also includes a stint as counsel with the U.S. Department of Justice, and professorships with the University of Chicago, Harvard and Columbia.
Lawson said putting Sunstein's record of anti-hunting and Second Amendment beliefs in front of the public now is important. Sunstein's extensive legal writings have made him "almost a rock star among the legal community," Lawson said.
"We look at it as an opportunity to do our darndest to block him getting in this position, which we liken to a black hole," he said. "It's not like he's going to be out there overtly blocking hunting issues, but then again, he doesn't have to. The head of OIRA supervises all federal laws, so they come to him and he could just block it, and no one would really know. That's the danger of the ORIA.
"Clearly, if he gets in here, and it would be tough to stop, but at least we've laid down a marker that he's a threat to the mainstream outdoors community. His views are unambiguous."