Partisan fireworks will fly this week as GOP leaders of a Senate panel use their first meeting this Congress to probe the Obama administration’s management of environmental agencies.
Freshman Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) has scheduled his first hearing as chairman of the regulatory oversight subpanel of the Environment and Public Works Committee. The topic of tomorrow’s meeting: overseeing management of U.S. EPA, the Chemical Safety Board, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Republicans on the subcommittee have been highly critical of the Obama administration’s environmental policies and leadership at the agencies charged with their implementation. On his website, Rounds calls EPA an agency "known for overstepping" its regulatory boundaries and vows to "fight to keep over regulation of these agencies in check."
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), another member of the panel, has been one of Capitol Hill’s most vocal critics of EPA’s management in recent years. The former EPW ranking member regularly accused the committee’s Democratic leadership in the last Congress of failing to properly police the agency amid personnel scandals like the case of EPA’s fake spy, John Beale.
Democrats on the subcommittee are almost certain to play defense for the administration. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the subpanel’s ranking member, has been among the administration’s most steadfast backers in Congress when it comes to supporting President Obama’s green agenda.
Now that they’re setting the agenda, committee Republicans will likely take aim at some recent personnel scandals like the Beale case and other examples of misconduct at EPA. They’re also likely to dig into the recent resignation of the Chemical Safety Board chief after the White House last month forced the ouster of controversial Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso (E&E Daily, March 27).
EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins, whose office oversees both EPA and the chemical board, is slated to update lawmakers on recent investigations.
A recurring complaint from his office lately has been an ongoing spat with EPA’s Office of Homeland Security. Elkins’ office has repeatedly complained to Congress that the Homeland Security Office has overstepped its bounds, blocking watchdogs’ access to information and hampering their ability to root out waste, fraud and abuse in the agency. EPA officials, meanwhile, have said they’ve been working with the watchdog office to find an agreeable solution (Greenwire, Nov. 7, 2014).
In the case of the chemical board, Elkins’ office raised concerns that Moure-Eraso and other senior CSB officials had continually stonewalled investigations into allegations of whistleblower reprisals and other management concerns.
Despite pressure from Rounds, EPW Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Moure-Eraso declined to step down until the White House explicitly asked for his resignation last month (Greenwire, March 19).
Fish and Wildlife Service
The hearing will also focus on Department of the Interior Deputy IG Mary Kendall’s oversight of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is a part of DOI.
"Chairman Rounds intends to use this first hearing as a jumping-off point to begin oversight of the FWS by first focusing on the prior work done by the inspector general and also receiving an update of the issues they are currently working on," an aide said.
In recent years, the DOI Office of Inspector General’s audits of FWS have mostly focused on state wildlife agencies’ management of a federal program that provides grants to restore, conserve, manage and enhance sport fishing and wildlife resources. They have generally found states to be in compliance with federal standards but questioned some of the dollars involved.
For example, the OIG’s most recent sport fish audit report focused on 51 restoration grants worth a total of $42.1 million that were given to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism during fiscal 2013. It found "that the Department complied, in general, with applicable grant accounting and regulatory requirements" but raised concerns about nearly $329,000 of "unsupported in-kind contributions."
One exception to that trend was a broader OIG report last month that called for better regulation and tracking of oil and gas drilling infrastructure in wildlife refuges. While FWS has a rule in the works that could address many of the issues raised in that report, the proposed regulation has been harshly criticized by some Republicans (E&ENews PM, March 5).
The leadership of the OIG, or lack thereof, could also be a topic of discussion at the hearing. DOI has been without a permanent IG for more than 2,240 days — longer than any other agency in the Obama administration, according to data compiled by the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
The absence of a presidentially nominated, Senate-confirmed IG overseeing DOI is a topic of concern for at least one subcommittee member. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is also on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, along with all the other members of that committee signed onto a March 24 letter urging Obama "to take swift action to address the vacancies of permanent Inspectors General (IGs) in the federal government."
IG vacancies — like the one at Interior that’s been unfilled since March 2009 — impede "the ability of these offices to identify and expose waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government," the letter said. "In addition, acting IGs in these roles create the potential for conflicts of interest, diminished independent IG oversight, and cause instability for IG offices."
Schedule: The hearing is Tuesday, April 14, at 9:30 a.m. in 406 Dirksen.
Witnesses: EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins and Interior Department Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall.