At the end of last week’s House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Interior Department’s 2016 budget, Chairman Rob Bishop offered Secretary Sally Jewell a sincere apology.
"In all fairness to you, you’ve had a lot of times when I’ve cut you off," the Utah Republican said. "I will give you the right of having the last five minutes if you’d like … to respond to us."
"Why, thank you," said a startled Jewell, who had been in the hot seat for more than three hours. "I was not expecting that … ."
Bishop interjected, "And it may never happen again!"
The audience in the Longworth House Office Building hearing room laughed, then Bishop sat back and let Jewell continue.
Since taking the Natural Resources gavel two months ago, Bishop, 63, has brought a sense of humor and even humility to a committee that has fought bitter battles with the Obama administration and had more than its share of intramural brawls.
Former Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) issued a number of subpoenas and accused Interior officials of "stonewalling" his committee’s investigations into allegations of misconduct. Another former chairman, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), berated his Democratic colleagues last week for supporting protections for wolves and proposed using wolves to clean up their "homeless problem."
Bishop, at times, has been merciless, too. A year ago, he criticized a National Park Service official for delivering some of the "dumbest testimony I’ve ever heard" about a bill to rename a peak in Yosemite National Park.
But while Bishop is likely to fight much — if not most — of the administration’s energy and resource agenda, his adversaries credit him for opening lines of communication that were all but cemented shut over the past four years of GOP rule.
A constructive dialogue with the administration and its green allies is key if Bishop hopes to advance his policy agenda in the 114th Congress, including his signature public lands initiative in eastern Utah, which seeks to designate new wilderness and open new lands for development (Greenwire, Oct. 22, 2013).
"Bishop has brought a more personable approach to interactions that his Natural Resources Committee has with top administration officials," said David Hayes, who served four years as Interior deputy secretary and testified several times before the committee. "Making a human connection is a key first step in finding common ground. I hope that his humor and candor rubs off on some of the other members of the committee."
Bishop’s views on national monuments, conservation funding, wilderness and endangered species contrast sharply with his Democratic colleagues and conservationists. But even green officials admit that despite Bishop’s rhetoric, they really like the guy.
"We’re not going to agree with him on everything, or even most things, but we can at least talk to him," said Athan Manuel, director of public lands protection for the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C. "He takes the process seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously."
Bishop said he wants the committee to be creative in tackling policy problems.
His plate is full: His committee will be responsible for renewing expired programs that are key to rural counties and conservation interests, including Secure Rural Schools, payment in lieu of taxes (PILT), the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, in addition to conducting rigorous oversight of federal land management.
Baseball talk — and oddball jokes
The seven-term congressman and former history teacher is seen as affable, approachable and, at times, self-mocking. He insists that some non-members of Congress, including the press, call him "Rob."
Bishop loves talking baseball. He has a painting of New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle and dirt from the pitcher’s mound of the original Yankee Stadium in his Cannon building office. But those who know him say his first allegiance is to the Chicago Cubs. He’s also a season-ticket holder to the Salt Lake Bees, a Triple A team, and has coached in multiple leagues, according to his official biography.
Before coming to Congress in 2003, Bishop was active in community theater, which is where he met his wife, Jeralynn Hansen Bishop, with whom he has five kids and six grandkids. Bishop was the prince and Jeralynn the princess in a musical.
"Yes, I sing," Bishop said.
He is said to be well-liked by his personal staff, many of whom have since left to fill higher positions on Capitol Hill and in state government. Bishop participated in the wedding of his former public lands staffer, Fred Ferguson, who is now chief of staff for Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
Bishop approaches natural resources issues with intensity, but his dry wit creeps into the hearing room.
In a tense exchange Thursday, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) grilled Jewell on what she knew about a Fish and Wildlife Service employee Gosar said had violated the Hatch Act by publicly lobbying against a bill in Congress.
"There also is an act," Bishop said as he prepared to turn the questioning over to another member, "that said any criticisms of the budget that is conducted when it is snowing, those criticisms are automatically true — it’s there in statute."
The hearing happened as snow shuttered the federal government and left most of Capitol Hill bereft of people. Bishop asked panel members to submit their written opening statements by 5 p.m., "or whenever this building crushes under a blanket of snow … whichever occurs faster."
Unlike other committee chairmen, Bishop often departs his prepared opening remarks.
He opened last week’s hearing without a gavel: "Assume it’s been hit," he said.
And in an improvised statement, he offered a "mea culpa" for criticizing Jewell’s nomination as secretary two years ago.
"I repent of that, because you have been very fair and open and friendly with us, and I appreciate that very much," he said. "Your agency is still making dumb decisions, but at least you talk to us before you make those dumb decisions."
His humor can be abstruse.
As Bishop prepared to hand the microphone to committee Vice Chairwoman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), he said, "Miss Jewell is salaried, she deals with services, and we’ll start our questioning with Dorothy Kilgallen."
It was a reference to the opening line of a popular 1950s and ’60s television game show called "What’s My Line," where host John Charles Daly tasked a celebrity panel, including newspaper columnist Kilgallen and actress Arlene Francis, to guess a contestant’s occupation.
But the hearing room was silent — the joke was likely lost on anyone born after the Kennedy administration.
"I’m sorry, I had to say that," Bishop said. "And anyone who’s old enough to know that reference, I feel even more sorry for you."
‘A little outlandish’
While Bishop does not hide his displeasure with Interior’s management of public lands — which represent roughly two-thirds of his Beehive State — former Obama administration officials say Bishop, unlike other committee members, was a fair interrogator and didn’t appear to be trying to garner sound bites.
"What you see in the committee room is the same person you see behind closed doors," said former Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey, who faced fire from committee members on numerous occasions from 2009 to 2012. "I never perceived Congressman Bishop as being a bully."
Abbey said Bishop treated him "fairly" and was well-versed in public lands issues, in contrast with some committee members. Bishop’s rhetoric "may be a little outlandish," but his work product as a congressman reflects balance and pragmatism, Abbey said.
"He certainly understands the issues and the concerns of the constituencies he represents," Abbey said. "At the same time, he tries to be fair in giving the witness before him an opportunity to respond to the questions he raises."
In the past two sessions of Congress, Bishop was deferential to then-Chairman Hastings, and the committee majority was "always in full attack mode," said Hayes, who often testified alongside then-Secretary Ken Salazar.
"Rob Bishop was a willing participant in that highly negative atmosphere," Hayes said.
But Hayes recalled one meeting that he and Salazar had with Bishop to clear the air on a contentious issue.
"I was impressed then with how personable Rob Bishop was during that meeting," Hayes said. "Afterward, he was publicly complimentary of the openness and candor that we had taken in the meeting. As I recall, he told the press that we were ‘good guys’ or something to that effect."