Republicans Turn To Industry For Advice On How To Reorganize Interior Department

Ryan Zinke is planning a major agency overhaul. His secrecy mirrors the Republican Party's "legislative fly-by-night style,” said one House Democrat.

WASHINGTON — Aside from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s comments about wanting to push more staff and resources away from Washington, D.C. — to the “front lines,” as he likes to say — few details have been made public about the Trump administration’s plans for reorganizing the Interior Department. 

Nevertheless, Republicans made clear at a hearing of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources that they support the move. And to get a better sense of how Interior should be reshaped, they turned to representatives of an oil and gas lobbying group and two think tanks with ties to the Koch brothers, the billionaires who promote conservative causes.

The Thursday hearing, titled “Transforming the Department of the Interior for the 21st Century,” examined “goals and policy ideas for reorganizing and relocating parts of the Department of the Interior and its bureaus,” according to a committee memorandum. 

In his opening statement, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said that Interior has “lost touch” with the concerns of the U.S. public, and that “decades of top-down directives issued from Washington” have rendered the department inefficient and unaccountable. He pointed to declining federal royalties from oil and natural gas — a favorite talking point of Zinke’s — and said that “as energy development atrophied, bureaucratic rot set in.” 

“The root of the problem,” Westerman said, “is that the employees with the decision-making authority are located not out in the field, but scattered in cubicles thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C.” 

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

On his first day at Interior, Zinke spoke of a “bold” reorganization that would address the challenges of the future, but the administration has yet to release specifics about its plans. In August, E&E News reported that effort could include  relocating three department agencies — the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation — to Denver. 

Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) dismissed the notion that Interior staffers need to be closer to the people they serve, noting that 90 percent of the department’s personnel are already working outside of Washington.

At Thursday’s hearing, he termed “disturbing” the few details that have trickled out about the department’s reorganization, and said it appears designed to weaken agencies and drive out employees. 

“The plan’s secretive development and hasty implementation echoes their legislative fly-by-night style,” he said, referring to his Republican colleagues.

Joining the hearing was a four-person panel that, notably, did not include Zinke or any other representative of the department targeted for the overhaul. Instead, the subcommittee’s GOP majority sought advice from Nicholas Loris, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation; Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the conservative Property and Environment Research Center; and Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance. The first two groups have received financial backing from the Koch brothers.

The subcommittee’s Democratic minority chose the fourth witness: Denis Galvin, an adviser to the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and former deputy director of Interior’s National Park Service.

The three Republican-backed witnesses each voiced support for decentralizing Interior and relocating some of its agencies to the West. Loris said Interior is “ripe” for reform. 

The relocation proposal would make the department “more accountable for the management (or mismanagement) of federal lands,” he said in his written testimony.

Sgamma said she also supports relocating certain operations. But she expressed concern about Zinke’s apparent plan to divide the department into 13 regions based on ecosystems or watersheds and implement a military style rotating command structure in which leadership would move among these offices.

“I, like others, lack information about what the Interior Department is really thinking of,” she said. 

Galvin said that though “reorganization in itself is not a bad idea,” such a “major undertaking should be thoroughly vetted by all interested parties, especially the Congress.

Noting the “meager public record” on the plan, he said, “Reorganization should result in increased effectiveness and efficiency. What we have seen and heard makes us doubtful.” 

As part of the reorganization, Zinke has advocated cutting up to 4,000 employees — a 16 percent reduction — and slashing Interior’s budget by $1.6 billion. In June, dozens of senior agency staff were reassigned, a move a spokeswoman claimed would “better serve the taxpayer and the department’s operations.”

The department’s inspector general is investigating the job shifts to determine whether they were done legally.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said at the hearing that unlike past administrations, Trump and his team want to do more than “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

“The committee is recognizing that there is a significant problem, and fortunately there is now an administration that’s recognizing there’s a significant problem,” Bishop said. “The cool part about this is that this reform effort feels different than what has happened before.”