Manchin’s choice: Who will be the No. 2 at Interior?

By Jennifer Yachnin | 05/10/2024 01:25 PM EDT

President Joe Biden has nominated Shannon Estenoz for deputy secretary. It’s unclear whether she will even get to the Senate floor.

Acting Deputy Interior Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis and Shannon Estenoz, the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

Acting Deputy Interior Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis and Shannon Estenoz, the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin once blocked Laura Daniel-Davis’ rise to a top Interior Department post, but now he could opt — without having to take any action at all — to let her retain the agency’s No. 2 post for the duration of the Biden administration.

President Joe Biden on Thursday nominated Shannon Estenoz, who serves as the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, to become deputy secretary.

Estenoz, an environmentalist with a long career in Everglades restoration, would succeed former Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, who stepped down in late October, and replace Daniel-Davis, serving on an acting basis.


Whether the Senate will confirm Estenoz — despite winning unanimous consent to her current post in 2021 — remains an open question in a contentious election cycle focused on the administration’s energy policies.

“The position of deputy secretary is critically important to my home state of Wyoming and to the entire West,” said Energy and Natural Resources ranking member John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), one of Interior’s fiercest critics.

“If confirmed, Ms. Estenoz would have broad authority over American energy and mineral production as well as the management of our public lands,” Barrasso said. “I will review her record thoroughly as we consider her nomination.”

Manchin, who holds the ENR gavel, has been among the president’s loudest critics on energy and natural resources, and has directed particular ire at Interior. He has yet to comment on Estenoz’s nomination.

Still, whether Manchin decided to move on Estenoz may not matter for the administration’s goals. If he stalls, Daniel-Davis could keep the post through the end of the current Congress and possibly beyond.

Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, a Senate-confirmed position can be filled by an acting official for a period of 210 days. That clock starts when the previous officeholder leaves their job, meaning Daniel-Davis had faced a mid-May expiration date.

But when a president nominates a new candidate for the office, the clock stops until the Senate either confirms or rejects the nominee, or the president withdraws the pick. If the Senate fails to act, the nomination expires at the end of the Congress.

“The only way the time clock can be extended is if the president makes a nomination,” said Chris Piper, manager of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition. “The acting time clock essentially freezes, and the person who is acting can serve indefinitely as long as the nomination is pending.”

According to data compiled by the Center for Presidential Transition, the average time for the Senate to confirm a nominee in the fourth year of a president’s term is nearly 80 days. By comparison, confirmations in the first year average nearly 62 days.

‘No more confirmations’

Even if Manchin and Barrasso are amenable to Estenoz, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) has vowed to block any Interior nominee over disagreement about the Biden administration’s move to reject a proposed mining road through the Alaska wilderness and to restrict oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

“Look, the Department of Interior, there’s going to be no more confirmations,” Sullivan said last month.

Sullivan’s office did not respond to a request for comment Friday. If Democrats do unify behind the nominee, his power to prevent confirmation would be limited.

Jeff Ruch, who serves as Pacific director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said that while the Senate should confirm nominees generally, allowing an acting official to stay in the deputy post at Interior “wouldn’t impair the operations of the department.”

“It’s not as important as for some other positions, because the No. 2 spot doesn’t have assigned statutory responsibilities,” Ruch said. “That’s where you get into issues where an action is invalidated because it was taken by someone who remained in an acting position past their sell-by date.”

Although both Democratic and Republican administrations have violated the Vacancies Reform Act by retaining individuals beyond the 210-day period, Ruch noted that the law is only enforced when lawsuits are filed to challenge decisions made by those officials.

“The federal vacancies reform act isn’t self-executing. It’s not like the overdue incumbent disappears in a puff of smoke,” he said.

In the meantime, Estenoz drew the endorsements of environmental groups including the National Wildlife Federation, which urged the Senate to act fast.

“Shannon has already been thoroughly vetted since she was so recently confirmed unanimously so she doesn’t deserve to get embroiled in election year politics,” Abby Tinsley, NWF’s vice president for conservation policy, told E&E News.

David Feinman, government affairs director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, said, “We hope the Senate will confirm her quickly, considering her first nomination cleared the Senate unanimously. She’s the right choice to help Secretary Haaland fulfill the president’s conservation goals.”