HOUSE:

Likely Interior approps chairman Moran not afraid to mix it up

This story was updated at 2 p.m.

Asked by comedian Stephen Colbert to describe himself in one word, Rep. Jim Moran chose "gentle."

But after some goading, he leaned over and threw a punch at Colbert's jaw.

The faux fight in Moran's Capitol Hill office parodied the white-haired, former amateur boxer's reputation for both charm and controversy.

The Virginia Democrat, who has weathered his share of scandal over the years, has never shied from throwing himself into the legislative ring during his 10 terms in Congress. And soon his influence is expected to grow, as he is poised to become chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds federal environmental agencies.

Environmental advocates praise the choice, saying Moran has been a longtime champion of their causes. But those who favor increased oil and gas production worry that he will work to curtail their efforts. As the panel proceeds with the spending bill for U.S. EPA, Interior Department and Forest Service, Moran could be a major figure in fights over climate change and energy policy on Capitol Hill.

Although Moran declined to outline his priorities for the subcommittee because the choice is not yet official, he said, "I have to admit that I have a great fondness, perhaps hero worship, for John Muir. So people can read into that what they choose."

Moran is slated to replace current Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who is expected to take over the Defense subpanel after the recent death of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). The Appropriations Committee and the Democratic caucus must officially endorse the moves.

"Generally speaking, I'm in accord with the Obama administration's approach to environmental protection and preservation," Moran said. "I do think we need a greater emphasis upon cleaner, more sustainable forms of powering our economy."

Having an Easterner in with a major say in the budget of agencies that control vast tracts of Western lands will be an adjustment, said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the subcommittee's ranking member.

"It'll be a little different in that so much of the Interior appropriation -- certainly not all -- but so much of it is focused on Western issues because that's where the public lands are," Simpson said. "So whether it's the Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service, those things are kind of Western sort of issues. But I am certain Jim will be fully engaged in studying those issues, obviously he's been on the Interior subcommittee for a long time."

Simpson added that he has dealt with Moran on some issues of concern to Idaho, including a wilderness bill, and that he has been very receptive. "Jim's a bright individual and willing to study the issues," he said.

Asked about being an Easterner on the panel, Moran said, "This land is your land, this land is my land, this land is our land."

"We all have to make compromises," he added. "If I want to move things that are important to the coasts, and I think it's a matter of the East and West coasts vis-a-vis the interior of the country, then you know I think we have to listen and learn, and I'm looking forward to working for example with Mike Simpson from Idaho, who has a different constituency but one I have great respect for."

The chairman prior to Dicks was also an Easterner, former Rep. Charles Taylor (R) of North Carolina.

Dicks called Moran a "worthy successor" and said he will do an "outstanding job" as chairman.

"He's been an active member of our committee for many years," Dicks said. "He's a strong supporter of the parks, the wildlife refuges and the endowments. I think he'll do a good job of keeping the committee's priorities. ... He cares a lot about the environment through the national parks, which he has a great love and affection for."

Senate Interior Appropriations Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said before the Presidents Day recess that she would be very happy to work with Moran. Asked whether they shared priorities, Feinstein said, "I don't know him very well, but I'll get to know him."

Early years and controversies

It has been a long road for Moran to become an Appropriations cardinal.

One of seven siblings, Moran grew up in a Boston suburb. He played football and boxed while studying economics at the College of the Holy Cross, then earned a master's degree in public administration from the University of Pittsburgh in 1970.

Moving to Washington, Moran spent five years as a budget officer at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He joined the Library of Congress as a senior specialist for budgetary and fiscal policy, then served as an aide to Senate Appropriations Chairman Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.) from 1976 to 1979.

Moran won election to the Alexandria, Va., City Council in 1979. He served as vice mayor of Alexandria from 1982 to 1984 but resigned after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge. The city's prosecutor, a Democrat, later found that Moran did not violate Virginia's conflict-of-interest law when his political action committee accepted a $10,000 contribution from a developer and used it to pay for such items as a tuxedo rental and Christmas cards.

Moran ran as an independent the next year and unseated the incumbent mayor in a race the Washington Post described as "an election so bitter and personal it resembled a family brawl." Moran rejoined the Democratic Party, and in 1990 upset six-term Republican Rep. Stan Parris with 52 percent of the vote.

In the mid-1990s, Moran co-founded the New Democratic Coalition, a group of about 70 House Democrats who describe themselves as moderate, pro-growth lawmakers who focus on economic growth, national security, free trade and technology development.

Moran has also been in the hot seat several times during his career.

After then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) said on the House floor in 1995 that Moran had "turned his back on Desert Storm," Moran asked him to step outside and shoved Cunningham as they left the House floor. Moran later apologized for his behavior.

In 2002, then-Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine, a Democrat, rebuked Moran for making an "error in judgment" in accepting a $447,500 loan in 1998 from MBNA Corp. while increasing his support for company-backed bankruptcy legislation. In 1999, Moran accepted a $25,000 loan from a friend, a drug company lobbyist whose legislation Moran supported.

House ethics and Justice Department investigators closed an investigation into the 1999 loan without taking action, and Moran said he disclosed the 2001 loan to House officials, the Post reported.

Moran also borrowed $50,000 from the co-founder of America Online, using the money to trade in stocks before repaying it a few months later.

His financial difficulties in the 1990s stemmed from medical costs of successfully treating his then-infant daughter's life-threatening brain tumor, according to Moran's office.

Meanwhile, Moran ignited a firestorm of criticism with his remark at an antiwar forum in 2003 that, "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this." Under pressure from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Moran stepped down as a House Democratic regional whip.

The Office of Congressional Ethics late last year decided against a formal House investigation of several House lawmakers, including Moran, regarding their dealings with defunct lobbying firm PMA Group.

Former Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) served on the Interior Appropriations subpanel with Moran for a decade and said that although the two were always friendly, he would describe Moran as very partisan and short-tempered, saying he will have to temper that tendency as chairman.

"He has a short fuse," Peterson said. "He was quick to anger. ... I saw it in committee, I saw it on the floor. That'll be problematic in that committee, because there's lot of heavy debate there."

But Moran said the flare-ups are in the past. "I certainly have aged and mellowed over the years," he said.

Asked whether he expects smooth sailing on the subcommittee, Moran said, "I don't know. It depends; that's a two-way street. ... I like the guys on the committee. I don't anticipate a whole lot of acrimony."

Dicks predicted that Moran will keep the partisanship at a minimum.

"Republicans participate in our committee in a completely bipartisan way," Dicks said. "It's one little place where bipartisanship is still alive and well. And I hope Jim will keep that going."

Climate, oil and gas

That bipartisan feeling may be put to the test with the fiscal 2011 spending bill when it comes to climate change and oil and gas drilling issues.

Moran joined other advocates of climate change action last year in saying U.S. EPA should begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions without delay. "EPA not only has the authority but the responsibility to regulate," Moran told reporters at the time, saying that the agency's actions are "entirely consistent" with Congress' effort to pass climate legislation to reduce emissions (ClimateWire, May 19, 2009).

"I have great respect for the Environmental Protection Agency and its authority," Moran added yesterday.

The Interior bill has long been a host of battles on oil and gas drilling, and Virginia is one of the leading states pushing for drilling off its shoreline. But Moran supported maintaining the now-lifted moratorium banning oil and gas drilling off the East and West coasts of the United States.

"Putting our nation's top tourist destinations at risk for an oil spill doesn't make sense when 80 percent of recoverable oil and gas reserves are already open for drilling elsewhere," Moran wrote in 2007.

Yesterday Moran said that offshore windmills would be better for Virginia's economy than oil drilling rigs.

He noted that some offshore drilling areas lie within the Navy's Virginia Capes Operating Area and said if the Navy withdrew, it would have a far more damaging economic impact than the benefits that would come from drilling.

"I think it just needs to be looked at with a clear objective eye before we commit to a whole lot of drilling offshore," Moran said. "There are a lot of leases that are already held anyway that haven't been drilled on. I'm a big proponent of windmills. ... That would be a job creator. Oil drilling rigs don't create any jobs, actually; people fly up to the rigs, they don't necessarily live in Virginia, probably none do."

Patrick Creighton of the Institute for Energy Research criticized Moran's opposition to offshore energy production. "We've got someone over at the Department of Interior that's bad enough when it comes to energy development; now we're going to have a rubber stamp it looks like taking the reins of that committee," Creighton said.

Former Rep. Peterson said he sees Moran as against production of a host of energy resources, including oil, gas, coal and timber. Moran may be less pragmatic than Dicks, who came from a timber state, he added. And he worries that Moran will side with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on "locking up" the outer continental shelf.

"He was certainly for not producing those in this country," Peterson said. "I think the Obama-Salazar-Moran team will ensure high prices for energy in this country in the future and will ensure we will import more of energy not less."

David Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society said Moran has been a strong ally on conservation issues and is quite familiar with key matters facing the federal land management agencies.

"He has always been a champion of the National Landscape Conservation System, has been concerned about the previous administration's energy policies on public lands, and has strongly supported protection of wilderness-quality lands," Alberswerth said. "He is also a strong advocate for Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts."

Moran also has been a booster of the National Park Service. "I've watched all of Ken Burns' series without falling asleep, so people can read into that what they choose," Moran said. "I love our national park system. I'm also a great admirer of Teddy Roosevelt."

Kristen Brengel, director of legislative and government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said she has been lobbying Moran's office for many years and that he has a strong environmental record. NPCA has awarded Moran its "Friends of the Parks" award several times.

"Whether it's national parks or national forests or BLM lands, he's really been a wonderful champion of making sure land is protected for future generations," Brengel said. "He's really sort of a go-to person when you're concerned about an administrative issue or legislative issue and need help."

When it comes to the nation's forests, Moran said he advocates more clearing out of woody materials that fuel fires.

"I'm strongly opposed to clear-cutting, but I'm a big fan of thinning," Moran said. "I really think in terms of Forest Service that we ought to let some of our trees grow stronger and taller. We've had a rash of forest fires, and I think one of the things that that indicates is we're not doing a good enough job in thinning and clearing our forests. Even though that's expensive, it's generally less expensive than the resulting damage from forest fires."

The League of Conservation Voters gave Moran a 93 percent favorable rating for 2009, down slightly from the 97 percent score he received for the 110th Congress.

Robin Bravender contributed.

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