The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives means a lot of new faces, a lot of new energy, and — maybe most exciting for us — new committee memberships. As we’ll explain here, committees are where a lot of the action happens in Congress. When lawmakers introduce a bill, it doesn’t go straight to the full House or Senate for a vote; it first goes through one or more committees, where it can get a hearing and a vote by committee members. A bill only gets a full House or Senate vote if the committees with jurisdiction approve it first.
Committees, in other words, are where ideas get debated in Congress before anything else happens. They’re also vehicles for oversight and investigations of issues in each committee’s jurisdiction. You’ll see that word (“jurisdiction”) plenty in this post — you’ve already seen it three times — so let’s be clear about what that means in a congressional context.
One quick note: while it’s important to debate how to solve a problem, with the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) chairing the Committee, we’ll no longer be debating whether climate change is a problem in the first place. Steven Colbert settled that question. Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee will focus on understanding the impacts of climate change and developing real solutions to combat it.
Natural Resources Jurisdiction
The federal government does most of its work through departments and agencies. Unless you’ve had to work on these issues yourself, you probably weren’t thinking about the Department of the Interior (DOI) the last time you visited a national park — but the National Park Service (NPS) that staffs and operates that park is part of DOI.
So is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which staffs and operates national wildlife refuges.
So is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages millions of acres of federally owned land (mostly in the West and in Alaska) and, among other management priorities, leases onshore property and mineral rights to fossil fuel companies.
Coal mining? That’s the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Dams and federal water resources? Try the Bureau of Reclamation.
Tribal relations are handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Making topographical maps, measuring stream flows, and conducting all sorts of environmental and geological research is the responsibility of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Our jurisdiction extends beyond DOI. We oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) management of our coastal zones and marine resources. (NOAA also handles things like weather tracking that are overseen by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.) One of our biggest responsibilities is overseeing the U.S. Forest Service, the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that manages national forests and has been at the forefront of battling our nation’s increasingly intense wildfires.
It’s our responsibility to understand the policy decisions made at DOI and the agencies we oversee, whether those decisions are consistent with the laws they’re supposed to uphold, whether those decisions are in the best interests of the American people, and whether the people making those policy decisions are acting within legal and ethical guidelines. It’s also our responsibility to draft new laws that guide how DOI and its agencies carry out their missions.
Each federal agency implements its own set of laws and policies. Whatever issues you care about most, it’s important to understand not just which laws are at stake but which agency or agencies enforce those laws. In a nutshell, that’s what congressional jurisdiction is: the world of agencies, laws and government officials a given committee oversees.
We don’t have to run down each agency’s entire mission here, but you get the picture. The Natural Resources Committee oversees a lot.
What is Outside Our Jurisdiction?
Different committees oversee different agencies, and it can get a little confusing. Thinking of Natural Resources as “the environment committee” can be useful shorthand, but it gets misleading if you’re not careful. The House and Senate each have more than one committee with environmental jurisdiction.
For instance, Natural Resources doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which implements the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and many other laws we think of as “environmental issues.”
Although we oversee the agencies that regulate oil and gas, we don’t oversee the agency that regulates pipelines. That’s the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of the Department of Transportation. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure oversees them.
We don’t oversee most of our country’s science and research agencies, like the National Science Foundation or the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — those (and other federal R&D functions) are the responsibility of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Why does this matter? Well, if you have an issue you want Congress to address, you need to know how to find someone who can help. Staffers and lawmakers at the Natural Resources Committee may be sympathetic to your situation, but if your issue is with the EPA or another agency we don’t oversee, there’s only so much we can do. Understanding the federal government isn’t always easy, but spending time understanding who does what can produce quicker results.
How Does the Committee Really Work?
Congress doesn’t just write laws in a vacuum. At its best, Congress asks questions first and makes decisions based on the information the answers reveal.
The Committee — and its various subcommittees, which we’ll get to shortly — holds two kinds of hearings on issues within our jurisdiction: legislative hearings and oversight hearings. At a legislative hearing, someone has drafted a bill and the Committee or one of its subcommittees is holding a hearing to discuss it. We invite witnesses who can speak about what that bill would do and why it’s necessary. Most bills are not sweeping rewrites of major federal standards. More typically, at least from Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee, you’ll see bills to clarify the legal status of a piece of land, close an unintended loophole in an environmental statute, or strengthen protection standards where they were unnecessarily weak.
Oversight hearings are a little different, although they can result in legislation if circumstances call for it. Oversight hearings start when there’s an issue that needs discussing — anything from members wanting to know more about an issue, to a law not working as intended, to a federal official facing accusations of misconduct — and feature witnesses testifying to inform lawmakers. After hearing from witnesses, if members of the Committee think new law needs to be written, someone introduces a bill based on what we’ve learned. Oversight can result in people being fired for malfeasance, it can show lawmakers that a new law is necessary, or — at its most basic — it can just bring new information to light, with the next step not yet clear.
The last official action the Committee can take is a markup. That’s when the full Committee meets to discuss a bill, and individual members can offer amendments for debate and a vote. After a bill is “marked up,” the full Committee votes on whether to pass the final amended version. If that version is approved, it goes to the House floor for consideration when the legislative calendar allows. That doesn’t always happen immediately, but once a markup is over, the Committee works with leadership to schedule the bill for a vote on the House floor and get it approved by the House of Representatives.
Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt currently sets management priorities and internal policy for the Department as a whole. Those decisions then trickle down to each agency to implement in its fields of responsibility, and orders from a secretary are often supplemented by similar orders by the head of each agency to rank and file staff. In addition to the laws and agencies as a whole under our jurisdiction, it’s this Committee’s job to oversee the actions of the secretary, the heads of the agencies we cover, and other politically appointed officials at those agencies. If those officials are ineffective, are credibly accused of wrongdoing, or are thought to be impeding their staff’s ability to carry out their mission, the Natural Resources Committee can step in to hold an oversight hearing, request information in writing, or execute a number of other oversight or fact-finding functions.
If you’re a member of the public and you see a problem at DOI or one of its agencies, you don’t have to have a law degree or be able to write a bill yourself to start the oversight process. Let staff at the Committee know what you’ve seen. Oversight is often the first step toward a remedy.
What Does a Democratic Majority Mean?
Holding the majority in the House of Representatives means Democrats set the agenda for each committee, including Natural Resources. During the 116th Congress, Natural Resources Democrats will:
- choose the theme for every hearing;
- choose most of the witnesses invited to speak at those hearings;
- choose what bills to hold votes on (and not hold votes on); and
- have the majority of members necessary to vote to pass or reject bills.
Put it all together, and here’s what being in the majority means: Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee will spend the next two years advancing progressive priorities for the American people.
Democrats on the Committee have a lot of different priorities than Republicans. With Democrats in charge, you’re going to see hearings on climate change and a lot of other issues that the former Republican majority didn’t want to talk about. One of the biggest differences: Democrats are focusing on climate and environmental justice. That’s a topic for a much longer post, but the shorthand version is that environmental issues often impact some communities disproportionately, and “environmental justice” is the practice of acknowledging and addressing those disparities. The economically struggling community of Flint, Mich., suffered for years from neglected water systems in a way you don’t usually see in high-income towns and cities. By the same token, the damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria wasn’t beyond federal agencies’ ability to address — but the Trump administration did almost nothing to help the Puerto Rican people, who the president didn’t consider a priority.
The Democratic majority on the Natural Resources Committee isn’t going to look the other way when it comes to environmental disparities. We’re going to hold hearings on these issues and get to the bottom of who’s being helped, who’s being hurt, who’s being ignored and why.
We’ll also work to hear directly from the American people on how they’re being impacted by the issues within our jurisdiction as we’re shaping policy including climate change.
Additionally, the committee can issue official reports on issues within our jurisdiction, send letters to the federal agencies that we oversee, and host forums to hear from the American people or witnesses on a particular topic.
Among other things, that’s what a Democratic majority means — hearing from and working for the people.
Okay, let’s talk about how the subcommittees work.
Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources (EMR)
Chaired by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), EMR oversees all energy development and mining on federal lands and in federal waters. That means traditional fossil fuels and minerals like oil, gas, coal, gold, copper and other resources, but it also means renewable energy development — everything from solar to geothermal to offshore wind. If it’s energy, clean or otherwise, it’s EMR . This subcommittee will play a big role in assessing whether the Trump administration’s fossil fuel policies are environmentally sensible, and what a better way forward might look like. It will also propose changes to our nation’s mining laws, which–believe it or not–still date back to the days when Ulysses S. Grant was president.
Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States (SCIP)
Chaired by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), SCIP is the center of Democratic efforts to improve indigenous access to health care, justice, education and sustainable economic growth, and to protect sacred cultural and historic lands. Democrats are committed to continuing our work with indigenous peoples to achieve these goals while advancing economic self-sufficiency, environmental justice, and tribal sovereignty.
Under the Republican majority, this subcommittee was called “the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs.” Democrats renamed it “the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States” — and refocused its jurisdiction — to reflect a more modern awareness of the first peoples of this country and their unique political and cultural needs. Although the term Indian is used in federal laws and policies, we use the term indigenous as a reminder of the diverse groups who first called this place home: Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Hawaiian Natives.
Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands (NPFPL)
Chaired by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), NPFPL handles management of our public lands that aren’t being leased out to fossil fuel companies. The subcommittee’s jurisdiction ranges from the National Park Service and our national forests to the Bureau of Land Management’s non-leasing operations. The subcommittee oversees laws like the Antiquities Act, which presidents have used for more than a century to establish national monuments when Congress fails to act; the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which reinvests offshore oil and gas royalties to promote the conservation of open space and access to public land; the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which governs how recreation and entrance fees are spent to improve public enjoyment of federal lands; the Grazing Act, which governs ranching on BLM land; the Wilderness Act; the Forest Service roadless rule, which protects pristine and undeveloped land in national forests; and more.
Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations (O&I)
Chaired by Rep. TJ Cox (D-Calif.), O&I handles — you guessed it — the oversight and investigations being conducted by the Committee as a whole, and can hold its own hearings to gather information about anything in the full Committee’s jurisdiction. While any subcommittee can hold hearings to learn more about an issue (the “oversight” hearings we discussed earlier), O&I tends to focus on long-running investigations of government and private sector activity to root out malfeasance, inefficiency or wrongdoing.
The Republican majority hardly ever held O&I hearings, perhaps because they didn’t see the need for oversight of the Trump administration. We don’t expect that to be the case during the last two years of the Trump administration.
Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife (WOW)
Chaired by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), WOW handles everything in its title. “Water” in this case refers to the federal water management and water delivery system run by the Bureau of Reclamation, which delivers water to millions of Americans.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know what “oceans” are, although you may not know that WOW handles laws like the Magnuson-Stevens Act (which regulates commercial fishing) and the Coastal Zone Management Act. As part of its oversight role, WOW is empowered to investigate issues like human slavery in the seafood industry, which remains a priority for Chair Grijalva from his time as Ranking Member.
“Wildlife” means WOW oversees the Endangered Species Act as well as laws that limit trafficking endangered and threatened species across national borders.
That’s a Wrap
While we try to be thorough, there’s always more to know about how the Committee works, what we do, what we don’t do, and how we can help. Hit us up with questions.
Some Committee staff have been on Capitol Hill for years. Some just started. But we’ve all been where you are now: we wanted to know more about what Congress could do to make the country a better place.
Let us know how we’re doing.