House Dems see new role for Interior in racial justice

By Emma Dumain | 07/10/2020 07:21 AM EDT

Mandating a plan for Interior Department police to use body cameras. Commissioning a study on a monument to a 1908 race riot. Encouraging broader dialogue on a former president’s record on racial issues as federal institutions continue to bear his name.

U.S. Park Police officers clashing with protesters at Lafayette Square near the White House last month.

U.S. Park Police officers clashing with protesters at Lafayette Square near the White House last month. Francis Chung/E&E News

Mandating a plan for Interior Department police to use body cameras. Commissioning a study on a monument to a 1908 race riot. Encouraging broader dialogue on a former president’s record on racial issues as federal institutions continue to bear his name.

As the nation undergoes a reckoning with race that has prompted both policy changes and introspection in all sectors of American life, House Democrats are using the congressional appropriations process to weigh in.

The extent of their eagerness to be players in this arena is evident in the 247-page report of directives, explanations and viewpoints that accompanies the Interior-Environment spending bill for fiscal 2021, which will be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee this morning.


Throughout the fiscal 2021 report, a combination of binding new mandates and strongly worded statements would directly insert the Interior Department into a wide variety of controversies, from improving police accountability to probing the role of Confederate imagery on public lands (Greenwire, July 6).

"It’s a brighter light because I think America is fully engaged in the conversation," House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said in an interview with E&E News, where she acknowledged how this year’s report compared with those of previous ones.

It’s true that the Interior-Environment bill report has always endorsed inclusiveness and diversity in federal programs. It has always funded initiatives intended to expand access to national parks and to make people from all walks of life feel welcome in government-managed outdoor spaces.

But this year’s document, to McCollum’s point, represents a heightened level of engagement on these issues.

Last year, the Interior-Environment report endorsed bolstering a federal grant program for preserving historic lands and properties.

This year, it specifically urges prioritization for projects representing Indigenous cultures that "may be nationally significant by providing a richer portrait of the nation’s past."

Likewise, last year’s report expressed support for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This year’s memo also directs both organizations to show within 90 days of the appropriations bill’s enactment their concrete efforts to "improve the diversity" of the projects they support and the communities they serve.

Most profoundly, the fiscal 2021 Interior-Environment report and bill lay out new provisions — never before seen in pre-amended base text — that would dictate an aggressive role for the Interior Department in negotiating the future of national monuments and memorials now at the center of heated public debates.

Monuments and names

Among the new provisions in the bill is a stipulation that the Interior secretary study sites associated with the 1908 Springfield, Ill., race riots to determine whether the area could become a part of the National Park Service.

During that incident, thousands of white people wreaked havoc and violence on a Black neighborhood over 48 hours in retaliation for law enforcement refusing to lynch two Black men suspected of a crime.

The bill’s report would direct the Interior secretary to work with the Smithsonian Institution on an outreach initiative educating the public on race, "specifically in discussions on questions surrounding monuments, memorials, and other symbols, including who they are named after." Progress updates to Congress would be required.

The report stops short of asking the federal government to rename the Smithsonian-affiliated Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

It does, however, note that the Wilson Center recently released a "public statement that Woodrow Wilson held racist views and implemented racist policies as President of Princeton University and while President of the United States and expects that this acknowledgement will allow the Center to clearly examine history."

The report "encourages the Center to support the Hubert H. Humphrey fellowship in social and political thought and to expand upon and generate more discussion on Woodrow Wilson’s legacy through a racial lens."

It names a February 2020 lecture — "Racial Memory, Woodrow Wilson and the Making of the Nation" — as an example of activity it can endorse.

"We need to strive to shine a bright light of equality and justice and hope and opportunity for everyone, and that means going back and looking at where we’ve failed," McCollum said of Interior’s task at hand.

"The Department of the Interior has a wonderful role to play in telling the story and welcoming everyone to our public lands and public spaces and to our monuments," she continued, "to share how we’re going to work to get it right every day of the year."

Challenging Trump

For McCollum, the need to address the display of Confederate monuments in national parks — and to ban the sale of Confederate flags at some national park gift shops — is at the top of her agenda.

She recalled being in her first term as ranking member on the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee in 2015 and watching in horror as an amendment relating to this issue was adopted by voice vote during a late-night floor debate, only for Republicans to later figure out what had happened and attempt to undo it.

A public relations nightmare erupted for the GOP, and party leaders chose to yank the bill from the floor rather than let the drama continue (Greenwire, July 9, 2015).

Five years later, McCollum is determined to try again, telling E&E News that at a certain point, "it became clear to me that this was an administration that was never going to take up the challenge of this issue."

President Trump has fiercely defended leaving Confederate monuments intact, accusing Democrats of trying to erase American history.

Meanwhile, in another direct challenge to the Trump administration’s lack of response in addressing the root causes of the recent rash of fatal shootings by white police officers of Black people, the Interior-Environment report would direct the Interior Department to develop a plan for outfitting all agency police officers with body cameras, to be submitted to lawmakers within 120 days of the appropriations bill’s enactment.

"The plan should include cost estimates with a breakdown for equipment and additional staffing requirements, including those dealing with data management and an analysis of what policies and training are necessary for implementation," the report reads.

The report also notes that the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill for fiscal 2021 would require the attorney general to "establish a training program to cover the use of force and de-escalation, racial profiling, implicit bias and procedural justice" for federal law enforcement officers — and that the Interior Department’s law enforcement units would be subject to this mandate.

And in an escalation of the standoff between House Democrats and the National Park Service over the violent confrontation at Lafayette Square between U.S. Park Police and demonstrators protesting racially motivated police brutality, the report specifies that the Park Police must turn over information about the incident within 10 days of the bill’s enactment — or face funding decreases of $50,000 per day the department is in noncompliance.

Interior spokesman Ben Goldey made clear yesterday that the agency would not be compelled by this report language as it continues to face accusations that it used tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters during the June 1 episode (E&E Daily, June 30).

"During the protests in Washington DC, United States Park Police officers have been violently assaulted and hit with bricks, glass bottles and other projectiles, while working to quell violent rioters and protect our nation’s monuments from ruin," Goldey said in a statement.

"Chair McCollum and other members of Congress should defend, not defund, our brave men and women in law enforcement."

‘A long way’

McCollum expressed hope that in other areas of the bill regarding racial issues, there could be common ground in how the Interior Department should engage — and Congress’ role in spurring action.

"I think we’ve come a long way since that night on the floor when a group of Republican members tried to undo … a serious dialogue about the role of Confederate symbols in our public spaces," she said.

It is unclear at this point, though, how hard Republicans, and the GOP-led Interior Department, will push back.

In a separate statement to E&E News, Goldey defended a long-standing statute giving the National Park Service the prerogative to "conserve civil rights sites, civil war battlefields, monuments and program that tell America’s full story, helping people have a deeper understanding of the American experience — especially during difficult times."

He said that the Interior Department "supports the use of the legislative and regulatory process by the President and Congress, rather than lawless vandalism, to make important decisions about removing symbols of historical events," but he added that "laws and regulations have established that monuments, memorials, statues and other marks managed by the National Park Service are not to be altered, relocated, obscured or removed."

Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, did not address specific riders in the Democratic-led bill and report but signaled an openness to a discussion.

"As elected officials, we have a responsibility to contribute to and encourage this long-overdue national conversation," he said in a statement to E&E News.

"I look forward to continuing to work with Chair McCollum on the details of this funding bill and am hopeful that we can reach a bipartisan agreement that will not only conserve our nation’s natural, cultural, and environmental resources, but will also help unify our nation during this challenging and divisive time."

A subcommittee markup of the bill Tuesday might have been a preview of that openness. While McCollum spoke at length about the Confederate flag provisions, no other Republican spoke out to object (Greenwire, July 7).