The House GOP’s new top watchdog plans to intensify oversight of the Interior Department and U.S. EPA in the 114th Congress, spotlighting everything from alleged restrictions on federal lands to employee misconduct.
Jason Chaffetz, the recently minted chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, created an Interior Subcommittee to oversee Interior, EPA, and the Energy and Agriculture departments.
The four-term Utahn could be a formidable obstacle for the Obama administration as it pursues executive protections for Western public lands, including national monuments, and seeks to balance energy development with protections for wild lands, water and the climate.
Chaffetz’s home state is flush with oil, natural gas and other minerals, but roughly two-thirds of the land is federally controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and National Park Service.
Chaffetz said he’s deeply concerned with the ability of Utahns to access federal lands and the "ever expanding" size of the federal estate.
"I’m a huge fan of multiple use," Chaffetz said in an interview with E&E Daily. "We have got to have certainty for these rural communities so that there can be rich energy development at the same time as preservation of some of the most scenic lands in the world."
Last August, Chaffetz took committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on a tour of rural Utah that included an evening boat ride down the Colorado River, a hike through Arches National Park, an overflight of coal country and a meeting with county commissioners who are fearful of Obama’s monument powers.
"I truly appreciated him taking the time and effort to be there" and understand Western issues, said Chaffetz, who months earlier had joined Cummings on a trip to Baltimore to build political good will. Cummings, whose relationship with former committee Chairman Darrell Isaa (R-Calif.) was anything but smooth, told The Salt Lake Tribune in November that he could work well with Chaffetz.
In Issa’s two terms as chairman, the committee held 350 hearings; sent more than 2,000 information requests to government agencies, officials and interested parties; and issued more than 100 subpoenas. It aimed to "expose waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement at all levels of the federal government."
Chaffetz’s new Interior subpanel will be led by Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who yesterday was also named chairwoman of the Congressional Western Caucus, a GOP group that has vigorously opposed Obama’s lands agenda.
The panel’s staff director will be Bill McGrath, former legislative counsel with Safari Club International who spearheaded the group’s legislative and political strategy around public lands and the Endangered Species Act. At Safari Club, McGrath oversaw legislation on polar bear trophies and ivory regulations and was treasurer of the group’s Republican-aligned political action committee.
Chaffetz also hired Machalagh Carr, an oversight staffer from the Natural Resources Committee who led investigations of Obama’s energy and wildlife agenda.
Chaffetz said the Interior panel will take a microscope to the Antiquities Act — the 1906 law that allows presidents to unilaterally set aside lands from energy development — and the National Environmental Policy Act and ESA. It will also scour the Federal Register for decisions affecting federal lands.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has taken note. She set up a half-hour meeting with Chaffetz last month in which the two discussed the need for openness and transparency in the executive branch.
"She asked that we not bombard her with fishing requests," Chaffetz said. "There shouldn’t be need for subpoenas. But if they’re going to play ‘hide the document’ with us, we won’t play shy."
Jewell butted heads with former House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) over subpoenas and document requests that she argued exceeded the committee’s constitutional limits, wasted tax dollars and distracted Interior from its land management duties.
Yet Jewell will be on her toes — particularly on Utah issues — with Chaffetz leading Oversight and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) chairing the Natural Resources panel.
Interior plans to roll out new rules on hydraulic fracturing, methane emissions and royalties in the coming years, and Obama is being lobbied hard by his green allies to designate a Greater Canyonlands National Monument in Chaffetz’s district. Those moves will be watched closely by Chaffetz, Lummis and Bishop.
Issa led withering assaults on National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, who was called to testify before the panel on his agency’s handling of Occupy DC, sequestration, the government shutdown and the agency’s management of guns.
But it’s been a while since an Interior secretary has been called to testify.
The panel’s other major focus will be EPA, Chaffetz said.
"They have some severe management issues, and their decisions are often without merit," Chaffetz said.
Chaffetz said he’s frustrated that EPA continues to pay one of its higher-level employees months after he was caught in the act of watching pornography at the office. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said she’d welcome congressional efforts to help the agency more easily fire misbehaving employees.
Chaffetz is also miffed that John Beale, the former EPA employee who posed as a CIA agent and pleaded guilty in 2013 to stealing nearly $900,000 in salary and benefits, occupied a position overseeing major air quality issues.
"He testified that he hadn’t showed up for years at work," Chaffetz said. "It kind of begs the question, ‘How are they implementing all of these rules? Who is in charge? Who is making these decisions? Were they just rubber stamped?’"
EPA was a whipping boy for the Issa-led committee last Congress, thanks in large part to Beale and the porn fiasco.
Issa last summer threatened to hold McCarthy in contempt over subpoenaed documents that he argued the agency was withholding. In September, he and other Republicans began to probe EPA’s relationship with the Natural Resources Defense Council as it pushed a power plant emissions rule and scrutinized the proposed Pebble mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.
Chaffetz last month wrote in the Deseret News that the Obama administration is a "target-rich environment" for oversight. He pledged "to create effective reforms that deter future abuses."
He did not say what kind of legislation he might pursue but pledged to collaborate closely with Bishop and the chairmen of the Appropriations Committee subpanels overseeing the Interior, Energy and EPA budgets.
"I’m not ready to announce any pieces of legislation, but they will fight back these onerous, unilateral decisions by the Obama administration," he said.
The Obama administration’s green allies are not thrilled with Chaffetz’s oversight plans.
"In the last two years alone, the House Natural Resources Committee has wasted more than $2 million of taxpayer money on document requests and time-wasting exercises that are intended to stop professionals at the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies from doing their jobs," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Obama Interior official. "It’s not clear how creating yet another congressional subcommittee is going to add up to anything other than more political theater and more taxpayer money down the drain."