INTERIOR:

'Rock star' budget chief has left the building

When word began to spread that the Interior Department's top career budget chief was calling it quits after nearly four decades of government service, congressional aides of both parties began fretting.

Pam Haze is one of Interior's most experienced ambassadors to Congress and a vital resource for appropriators who decide how to fund the $12 billion department.

"All of us are nervous," said a Senate Appropriations Committee aide, who was distraught enough to call a meeting earlier this month with his counterpart across the aisle to discuss Haze's departure.

Haze -- Interior's deputy assistant secretary for budget, finance, performance and acquisition -- retired Friday after nearly a decade shaping the department's fiscal programs.

Her departure leaves a gaping hole in Interior's budget and policy shop, say current and former agency officials and congressional staff.

"She is one of the best, or maybe the best, public servant I have worked with," said Chris Topik, who worked with Haze as an aide to former Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington. Dicks left Congress in early 2013 as the Appropriations Committee's top Democrat. "Her reliability is legendary."

Dicks, who now works for Van Ness Feldman LLP in Washington, D.C., called Haze "the most valuable asset the Interior Department had during her long tenure" and "someone who was not only likable but very effective."

Haze has worked under Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget Rhea Suh in a post that oversees the Offices of Budget, Finance and Acquisitions.

Her knowledge of the agency and its 70,000 employees is unparalleled, according to those who have worked with her. Described as a "rock star" by two Interior colleagues, Haze is credited with helping keep the department afloat during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the federal sequester and the government shutdown of October 2013.

Lawmakers of both parties said she kept them abreast of Interior programs without political varnish.

"She is vital at educating the Hill on how the DOI works, and what the value of various money for various programs is," Topik said.

Haze has lived in Washington since 1981, but she plans to sell her home near Sibley Hospital after retirement.

She and her husband, Gary Barber, plan to ride cross-country on their Harley Davidson Softail to visit national parks, refuges and public lands, she said. They may want to spend time with Barber's great-grandchildren in Texas.

"A little fear, a little excitement," Haze said of her pending retirement in an interview last month. (Haze technically has been retired since early June but was a re-employed annuitant until Friday.)

From fish counter to Hill whiz

A Philadelphia native, Haze moved to Fairfax County, Va., while in middle school and later attended George Mason University to earn a bachelor's degree in wildlife biology in the 1970s.

Her Interior career began in 1975 as a clerk for the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, an agency that was later folded into Interior's Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service before being abolished by former Interior Secretary James Watt during the Reagan administration.

Haze later worked for the Bureau of Land Management in Eugene, Ore., where she donned hip waders and counted fish downstream from logging sales.

The work was rewarding but backbreaking, she said. It convinced her that she could more effectively conserve wildlife as an administrator. Haze returned to GMU for a master's degree in environmental science, and in 1983 she landed a job with the Fish and Wildlife Service working in fisheries conservation, a job that would bring her great joy.

"I was working with thousands of biologists who shared my love for conservation," she said.

It was at FWS that Haze got her first experience in federal budgeting. After several years as an FWS analyst and a short stint as a biological resources manager for the U.S. Geological Survey, Haze in 1999 became Interior's deputy director for budget. She's been Interior's top career budget chief since 2008.

There are perhaps few at Interior who better understand the agency's mechanics. Haze has worked with Interior Secretaries Bruce Babbitt, Gale Norton, Dirk Kempthorne and Ken Salazar and current Secretary Sally Jewell, and she estimates she's testified more than 50 times on Capitol Hill.

She said she worked closely with and admired former Reps. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and Dicks; Reps. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Jim Moran (D-Va.); former Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.); and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

With her Hill connections, Haze helped prepare Interior officials to testify. She knew the idiosyncrasies of various staff and could forecast the types of questions members would ask, according to one former Interior colleague.

Haze also worked well with staff of both parties, and she was trusted to keep sensitive conversations in confidence, according to a Republican Senate aide.

"I have no idea if Pam is a Republican, an independent or a Democrat," the aide said. "It just doesn't enter into our discussion."

'Bearer of bad news'

Haze's credibility earned her rapport among lawmakers and top Interior officials, particularly during times of turmoil including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

"Pam had the unfortunate task of always being the bearer of bad news," said one former Interior official. But she kept a positive, and at times humorous, attitude, the official said.

"You often see people who will tell you the bad news, then open up some wine and wallow in it," the former official said. "Pam would immediately pivot to what we can do about it, and here's how we're going to fix it."

Looking back on her career, Haze said she's particularly proud of her work helping secure $3 billion for Interior programs, including road improvements for American Indian tribes and wetlands restoration, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Haze also played an instrumental role in the restructuring of the scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service following the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. Colleagues credit her with helping secure funding boosts to the newly created Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Haze also played a key role during House-Senate negotiations in 2011 over language to approve an Obama administration proposal to raise more than $60 million in offshore inspection fees to bolster BSEE's permitting and environmental oversight.

Decades before that, Haze worked closely with the late Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie on the reintroduction of wolves and the recovery of grizzlies, peregrine falcons and condors, she said.

She also faced some tough challenges.

Chief among them was the sequester that lopped more than 5 percent off every Interior account beginning in March 2013. Haze said she "keenly" felt the anguish of her bureau directors over the furlough of employees.

"You're really inviting disappointment," Haze said. "You can't meet their needs, and you know that. You're asking them to choose between their children."

Haze said the sequester, the government shutdown and Congress' departure from regular spending order have been exhausting. "For the geeks like me in the budget process, we personally feel it."

There were acute political challenges, too.

Haze last summer found herself the target of bipartisan fire when she was the administration's lone witness on a bill by Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to divert offshore oil and gas revenues from the U.S. Treasury to coastal states. Landrieu blasted Haze for holding a "double standard" against coastal states and called the administration "heartless" for not backing the bill.

"I was alone at the table, and there wasn't a panel to allow me to slink down in my chair a bit," said Haze, who said she volunteered for the hearing since she had the most experience on the issue.

Reluctant retiree

It's a mystery how many hours a week Haze worked, but colleagues recalled receiving emails at odd hours of the weekend and suspect she rarely left the office.

She appears to have relished the grind.

"If I could, I'd work for the next 400 years," she said. "But my husband has been waiting patiently for me to retire for the past 10 years."

Haze and Barber, who spent most of his career as an auditor for federal agencies, have been together since 1981 and have two dogs and a cat.

Haze said she likes to read biographies and mystery stories and has "this really crazy thought I'm going to write a book. But don't hold your breath."

She also enjoys tending her flower garden, hiking Rock Creek and visiting the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

After retirement, she hopes to do more walking and hiking and potentially rescue dogs or volunteer in bat conservation, she said.

Interior is yet to name a successor.

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email: ptaylor@eenews.net

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