The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources voted Wednesday to give its chairman the power to subpoena the Department of the Interior to obtain documents related to the controversial Bureau of Land Management’s office move to Grand Junction.
The majority of the committee believes the Department of the Interior has committed “mismanagement, waste, fraud, abuse and wrongful conduct in relation to functions within the jurisdiction of the Committee on Natural Resources,” according to the final committee resolution.
Information and data supporting the decision to move BLM offices out West are among the documents yet to be released to the committee by the Department of the Interior. The committee sent 26 formal requests for information to the department, but Chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., received complete responses only twice.
“We have never confronted an administration like the Trump administration that sees the role of this branch of government as irrelevant and inconvenient. And they want to, in their own imperial style, do what they want without any checks, without any balances, and without any oversight,” Grijalva said at the hearing.
“And that is a dangerous path,” he said.
The committee held a hearing in September about the administration’s failure to comply with requests for information. But under former Secretary Ryan Zinke and the current secretary, David Bernhardt, the Department of the Interior has sent only thousands of pages of redacted data, which committee members held up at the meeting.
Bernhardt tweeted in response to the committee’s decision, saying he is a “steadfast believer in the need to accommodate Congress’ oversight function,” and that the Department of the Interior has provided “an unprecedented amount of documents.”
“As of this morning, the department has produced 21,935 documents totaling 204,709 pages in 80 substantive responses to the committee,” Bernhardt wrote in a tweet. But he does not mention how many of those pages were completely blacked out, or redacted.
Bernhardt referred to the subpoena as a “witch hunt” in his tweet, following rhetoric previously used by President Donald Trump in reference to the impeachment inquiry led by Democrats in the House.
The vote fell along party lines, with 21 Democrats in support of the subpoena power and 15 Republicans against it.
But Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a statement that the BLM move to Grand Junction has bipartisan and broad political support.
“Washington politicians can oppose Colorado and the West all they want, but I believe in Colorado, the West and in our ability to host and work with the BLM to accomplish great things for our public lands,” Gardner said.
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said that by granting himself subpoena power, Grijalva is attempting to shut out the input of the committee’s Republican members.
“While committee Democrats may not support the BLM’s decision to move its headquarters closer to the lands that the agency manages, they should not rig the rules in order to push their flawed political narrative,” Tipton said in a statement.
But both Democrats and Republicans on the committee have expressed frustration over withheld documents in the Department of the Interior. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., is one of them, according to The Hill.
“There are many of us on the other side of the aisle that may not share the Democrats’ policy positions, but do recognize the role of oversight, and are frustrated when legitimate requests, bipartisan requests are made and not answered,” McClintock told The Hill in September.
BLM ‘dissipating’ across the WestOne of the unknowns surrounding the BLM move is identifying which programs lost funding to fund the transition.
Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society and director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative in the West, said he is concerned about what is being underfunded because the Department of the Interior never asked for additional funding for the BLM move.
With the legislative affairs office in Grand Junction, one of the “hardest places to get back and forth from D.C.,” the move was “not an effort to make it easier and better” for the agency to advocate for federal policies to manage the lands, Rutledge said.
Before the BLM move, Rutledge said he had no problem contacting state BLM directors and staff and working out land management issues with them.
About 80% of the 159 BLM staffers in Washington left their jobs instead of moving to the new headquarters in Colorado. Rutledge called the move part of an “intentional destruction of branches of the federal government.”
“We are relying on the House committee to do a tremendous amount of work” to fix this problem, Rutledge said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.