House Committee Holds Hearing on Interior Dep’t, Sans Dep’t Reps

WASHINGTON (CN) – The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations scheduled a hearing Thursday to discuss the Trump administration’s planned restructuring of the Interior Department, but a spokesperson for the department said nobody invited its representatives to speak and the session ended an hour after it began.

Among those who were invited to speak by the Republican majority on the committee were representatives of the Heritage Foundation and the right-leaning Property and Environmental Research Center, a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and an advisor to the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, an advocacy group of former National Park Service employees.

President Donald Trump set the reorganization plan in motion in March, when he signed an executive order directing the Office of Management and Budget to come up with a scheme to streamline government agencies.

The OMB in turn sent all executive branch department heads a memo directing them to identify ways to cut costs and improve organizational efficiency by merging agency functions. In July, the OMB followed up, by directing the departments to submit their 2019 budget requests by September.

To date, the Interior Department has failed to issue even a draft plan to the House or forward the OMB its budget request, decisions that clearly upset committee Democrats on Thursday.

The only thing they’ve heard from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is that he plans to run the department in the same manner that he led naval commands.

“Empower the front lines, cut the waste, fraud and abuse, hold people accountable and do more with less,” Zinke said in April.

Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., vented his frustration at what he decried as the department’s lack of transparency, complaining that “we, the subcommittee with jurisdiction, have not been allowed to see the plan.”

“This plan has received no input from stakeholders or Congress,” McEachin said.

McEachin said he’s been told the department’s reorganization plan was submitted to OMB, but House Republicans have decided to hold back its wider release.

The Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite Democrats’ misgivings, Rep. Brian Westerman, R-Ark., the subcommittee’s chairman, said he’s enthusiastic about the prospects of the pending overhaul.

The majority of people distrust the government’s ownership of federal lands because of their “poor resource management,” Westerman said.

“Management of oil and gas resources are among the federal programs most in need of transformation,” he said, adding the department needed employees with “decision-making authority” in the field, not “scattered in cubicles thousands of miles away in D.C.”

Westerman said he supports privatizing public lands, saying past Bureau of Land Management resource plans have been too “restrictive and unproductive.”

“They’re a drag, rather than driver. Sustained yield and multiple use management have been ignored,” he said.

Westerman then went on to lament what he said is a $12 billion backlog in federal land maintenance projects. He blamed that lack of empowered field offices for the delays.

But Rep. McEachin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, challenged Westerman’s claim.  He asked Denis Galvin, the advisor to the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, is decentralization of the Interior Department’s functions would cure “internal dysfunction.”

“It isn’t dysfunction, I can assure you that … It’s a matter of money,” Galvin said.

Galvin said Westerman was actually underestimating the backlog,  citing figures from the American Society of Civil Engineers that suggest its probably closer to $20 billion.

“I wish it were dysfunction, so you could eliminate [it.] That’s a fairytale. It just isn’t going happen,” Galvin said.

Currently, a 1947 federal law says all offices “attached to the seat of government shall be exercised in the District of Columbia and not elsewhere.”

It could change. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., proposed a bill in May which directs the Interior Department to relocate the Bureau of Land Management to a Western state. It currently has 17 House co-sponsors, including two Democrats.

Bobby McEnaney, senior deputy director at the Natural Resource Defense Council, said in an interview Thursday he worried such a move would actually curtail public interaction with the department and its agencies.

“One of the great things about the way the BLM and DOI are run now is that it’s a very democratic process. The public has an unusual amount of access and number of rights to participate in how federal lands are managed,”  he said. “If you reduce federal oversight here … only a select few will have a say on how these lands are managed. It’s anti-democratic.”

McEnaney said as far as he’s concerned, the Interior Department and its agencies should stay right where they are.

“It’s a false premise that there’s no regional input in the process,” he said. “The individuals and the federal employees based in D.C. are mostly here to provide expertise to state directors and field managers. They help provide decisions which are sound. If you eliminate that expertise, you eliminate safeguards.”

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