Congressional Committees don’t vote just on new bills. One of their primary duties is to oversee the federal agencies in their jurisdiction and keep track of how they’re implementing the laws Congress has already passed. The Natural Resources Committee oversees the Department of the Interior, the agencies within the department, and other agencies (like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that implement laws in our jurisdiction. (We wrote a post explaining what “jurisdiction” really is and how it works, so take a look if you need a primer.)
Committees make it easier for members of Congress to focus their time and effort and ensure the government serves the public interest. One of the tools committees use to do that is called oversight authority. To take just one example, if Congress has reason to think the Interior Department isn’t enforcing the Endangered Species Act, the Natural Resources Committee can hold a hearing, ask the administration for documents, or ask for interviews with Department employees to better understand what the administration is doing and why. The Committee can use what it learns to write bills and try to solve problems it identifies. This is part of a normal, functioning democracy. The executive branch doesn’t get to just say, “Trust us” — no matter which party the president belongs to, Congress is always there to provide checks and balances.
The Trump administration has intentionally undermined that process. Since the beginning of 2019, this Committee has sent 26 formal requests for information to the Interior Department. (You can read most of the letters we’ve sent at our website here.) They’ve sent complete responses to only two of them. For the rest, instead of real information, they’ve sent us thousands of pages of wingdings and other unreadable text; whole reams of entirely blacked-out pages of data that they’ve “redacted” without giving a reason (which they are required to do); printouts of unrelated emails and publicly available news articles; a printout of an Excel chart of more than 12,000 pages, which they could have emailed; and sometimes just blank pages of nothing.
Their stonewalling has been so egregious, and so obviously calculated to make us stop asking questions, that we held a hearing in September 2019 on why they refuse to answer simple questions. The Interior Department’s top lawyer, Daniel Jorjani, appeared as the administration’s witness and . . . refused to answer simple questions. You can watch the hearing here. Chair Grijalva’s opening statement included examples of the Trump administration’s “responses” to our reasonable requests. It’s gotten so bad that Republicans on the Committee pushed the Trump administration to do a better job of responding to us too.
The administration’s response usually comes in two parts:
- First, they point to the number of pages they’ve sent us as evidence that they’re trying hard to cooperate. They never acknowledge the fact that key pages are missing or redacted, and that we’ve told them so (not that they should have needed us to explain it — anyone can look at a pile of blacked-out pieces of paper and decide for herself she hasn’t answered the question).
- Second, they claim that seeking this information is too hasty, or an overreach, or that we should just agree to a face-to-face meeting to talk things out. This has become so prevalent, and so predictable, that Chair Grijalva directly addressed it in his most recent letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. (Bernhardt is a former oil lobbyist who has so many conflicts of interest he had to carry a laminated card with him reminding him of all the industry figures and polluting corporations he wasn’t allowed to speak with. He’s been deemed the most ethically conflicted Trump cabinet member.)
These stalling tactics are really about not providing any on-the-record, documented responses to legitimate questions. Meeting in person can be helpful, but when we’re asking to see a report the administration has suppressed, that document needs to be provided in full, not just discussed in a conference room. Not wanting to provide written records is the opposite of transparency, and the more it happens, the more reason we have to wonder what they’re hiding.
We’re not asking these questions just because we’re curious. There are serious problems with the way the Trump administration is currently running the Interior Department, and the consequences will be with us long after Trump leaves office. They have canceled environmental impact studies on how dangerous drilling and mining are for our public lands. They’ve cut short public comment periods on major decisions that could leave pollution in our back yards for decades to come. William Perry Pendley, the outspokenly anti-government, anti–federal employee ideologue who’s been “acting” director of the Bureau of Land Management since July 2019 (which is almost certainly illegal), decided to relocate the Bureau’s headquarters employees from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo. — and still won’t offer any serious cost-benefit analysis or credible explanation of why this is being done.
Moving an agency’s headquarters poses a direct threat to funding, expertise, and access to decision-makers on Capitol Hill. The BLM headquarters staff stands to lose nearly 80 percent of its employees, erasing institutional memory and leaving it more vulnerable to lobbyists. The new headquarters is now near Secretary Bernhardt’s hometown, in the same building as several oil and gas companies. This is “efficient” only if you’re trying to dismantle the agency and undermine its mission.
The fact is, no matter what you think of the administration, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party or politics in general, Interior has given the Natural Resources Committee NO answers as to why they’ve decided to do these things. It’s a bad precedent, and it’s looking less like a series of honest mistakes every day.
This Committee has a duty to oversee the Interior Department whether or not the Trump administration is comfortable with it. Their cover-ups, beyond hiding potentially illegal or unethical conduct, have impacted Congress’ ability to do its job. If the Committee doesn’t have information about problems in an agency, then it becomes harder to solve problems by passing a new law or holding people accountable.
We’re left with our last option, which is why we’re here today. On Feb. 12, Committee members are voting to give Chair Grijalva the same authority most other committee chairs already have: the authority to issue subpoenas. We’ve tried sending letters from Chair Grijalva and members of the Committee. The administration obviously has no interest in answering them. We’ve held oversight hearings, gone to briefings with administration officials, and reached out for more information on multiple issues, each with a new response deadline that tries to accommodate the administration’s timeline. Nothing has worked.
That’s why we’re voting to keep open the option to send legally enforceable requests for documents, or for people to appear and truthfully answer questions.
This authority is not unusual. Most committees in Congress give it to the Chair at the beginning of each Congress in the rules that organize the committee’s operations, as a matter of course. Natural Resources is one of the few to even require the vote we’re taking.
We’re not doing this lightly — subpoenas really are a last resort. We’ve tried for more than a year now to work with the administration in good faith. The results, frankly, speak for themselves.