Ranking Member Grijalva, Rep. McEachin Press Sec. Zinke to Clarify Regulatory “Task Force,” Deputy’s Regulatory Role
Washington, D.C. – Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Ranking Member Donald McEachin (D-Va.) sent a pair of letters to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke today pressing him for clarification on a recently announced Department of the Interior (DOI) “task force” charged with abolishing DOI regulations (available online at http://bit.ly/2p60QN6) and on the role of Acting Deputy Secretary of the Interior James Cason in the awarding of grants and in policy decision-making, which seems to have greatly expanded in recent days (available online at http://bit.ly/2pVjxH9).
Taken together, the letters represent Democrats’ latest efforts to increase transparency at the Department, which has faced increasing criticism and media scrutiny for its lack of public engagement under the Trump administration.
The Letter on Deputy Secretary Review of Major Decisions and Grant-making
Zinke sent a memo April 12 to all DOI Assistant Secretaries directing them to ensure that all bureau heads and office directors report to the Acting Deputy Secretary on all “proposed decisions” that have “nationwide, regional, or statewide impacts,” and that decisions may not be made until the Acting Deputy Secretary has “reviewed the report and provided clearance.”
Zinke’s memo also directs bureau heads and office directors to report to the Acting Deputy Secretary all Fiscal Year 2017 grants and cooperative agreements of $100,000 or greater before the final award is issued, in order to “assess how we are aligning our grants and cooperative agreements to Department priorities.”
As Grijalva and McEachin point out in today’s letter:
While the memo purports to be in part for the purpose of allowing the Acting Deputy Secretary to learn more about how Departmental decisions are made, the person currently filling the role of Acting Deputy Secretary, Mr. James Cason, served as Associate Deputy Secretary for the Department of the Interior from 2001 through 2009, and would be expected to already have a good understanding about Departmental processes.
As the Billings Gazette, the largest newspaper in Zinke’s home state of Montana, reported April 28, the order has left the state’s natural resources agency “scrambling to understand and deal with the consequences,” especially given the importance of federal support for the state’s resources programs. The article pointed out the potential impacts of delayed funding to local conservation projects, some of which might be canceled if federal money is not available.
Among other requests, Grijalva and McEachin’s letter asks for any guidance issued to DOI agencies clarifying the scope of Cason’s review authority; an explanation of what approval or modification authority Cason can exercise over grants and regulatory decisions; and an clarification of the meaning of “nationwide, regional, or statewide impacts.”
The Letter on the DOI Deregulatory Task Force
Executive Order 13777, signed on Feb. 24, required the creation of “task forces” at federal agencies to review regulations and recommend repeal or modification after conversations with regulated industries and other stakeholders. The DOI task force, as E&E News reported April 24, consists of five political “beachhead” employees and one career staffer but no Senate-confirmed personnel or staff with clear technical expertise in land management, wildlife management, environmental protection, or safety regulation.
As Grijalva and McEachin write to Zinke, there is no information in the relevant Secretarial Order (SO 3349) “about how this task force will operate, where it fits in the regulatory review process created by SO 3349, whether any of its activities or decisions will be transparent and be made known to the public, whether it will accept public comments, or any other logistical detail.” Regulations are made through a public process, Grijalva and McEachin write, and no “review” should take place beyond the ability of the public to understand and comment on it:
As with the standard regulatory process, this task force should not operate in the dark. The American people deserve to know why certain regulations are or are not being considered for repeal or modification, how decisions to repeal or modify regulations are being made, and the true health, safety, environmental, and economic impacts of making changes to those regulations.
“Secretary Zinke’s recent memos look like an attempt to weaken our federal agencies from within and make it harder for career staff to do their jobs,” Grijalva said today. “Subjecting every meaningful grant and important decision to additional ‘review’ for compliance with an ideological agenda is not how we make policy in this country. Creating an industry-friendly task force that operates without public scrutiny and is able to recommend abolishing regulations without public comment is absurd and sets a dangerous precedent. Congress shouldn’t be ignoring this – it should be investigating with all the resources at its disposal.”
“Oversight processes and procedures must be transparent,” Rep. McEachin said. “The American people deserve to know more about how the Department of the Interior is making its decisions and determinations. This administration seems to always want to hide behind smoke, mirrors and alternative facts. Let’s throw open the doors so Americans can see how and what decisions are made.”
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