An Interior Department reorganization that began with a bang may end in a whimper, a bureaucratic shadow of its former self.
House Democrats want to cut off funding. Senate Republicans want more answers. And the Interior secretary who inherited the grandly ambitious proposal from his predecessor has distanced himself from some earlier concepts (E&E News PM, June 8, 2017).
Taken together, the developments in recent days, including testimony by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and a blunt report by the powerful House Appropriations Committee, suggest Interior reorganization is still real but certainly shrinking. What it ends up as may be anyone’s guess, but it’s losing its aura of being one Cabinet secretary’s legacy project.
One small symbolic hint of the difference between then and now popped up May 7, when Bernhardt was summoned to defend the fiscal 2020 Interior Department budget proposal that included a request for $27.6 million in reorganization funding.
"Secretary [Ryan] Zinke put a tremendous amount of time and effort into a view," Bernhardt told House appropriators, characterizing the reorganization proposal as "his thinking" that was reflected in "his budget."
In another small hint of the changed dynamic, the most recent "What’s New" update on Interior’s reorganization webpage was posted last November, when Zinke still held office and Bernhardt was his deputy.
Bernhardt formally succeeded Zinke on April 11, well after the Trump administration had prepared its $12.6 billion Interior budget proposal.
Interior’s reorganization plan calls for 12 consolidated regions in which different bureaus could communicate more directly and share certain functions like procurement and IT support.
While stoutly defending the plan’s core notion of consolidating Interior bureau functions into fewer regions, Bernhardt this month effectively repudiated Zinke’s military-inspired concept of establishing a "unified regional commander" with a staff and authority over bureaus.
"I have serious questions about the utility of that," Bernhardt told members of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.
Bernhardt drove the nail home on May 15, when he told the House Natural Resources Committee he was "not sold" on Zinke’s unified regional commander idea. Reading between the lines, "serious questions" and "not sold" add up to DOA (Greenwire, May 15).
In the two years since Zinke first touted his broad Interior reorganization vision as part of "planning for the next 100 years," a campaign in which he summoned Interior employees to "have the same courage" as President Theodore Roosevelt, political and bureaucratic realities have moderated other elements, as well.
Earlier regional lines have been redrawn. Under Western governors’ pressure, Bureau of Land Management state director positions have remained intact. And, publicly and privately, Bernhardt has lessened expectations.
"I can tell you based on our previous conversation, his vision is not nearly as comprehensive a restructuring as the former secretary," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters this week.
Reorganization: Always a hard sell
None of this is surprising, given the history of other reorganization campaigns.
"At Interior, we have begun to make sweeping institutional and policy changes to end what I see as the domination of the department by mining, oil and other special interests," then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus said in a speech to the National Wildlife Federation in early 1977.
Andrus, who helmed Interior during the Carter administration, vowed to overhaul the agency and "centralize" policymaking.
"We intend and have begun to break up the little fiefdoms which have divided Interior for years. For too long each of the interests — grazing, mining, timber and so forth — has had its own domain," Andrus said. "The place was like a centipede with each little pair of feet scuttling off in its own direction. That is going to change."
Two years later, Andrus unveiled his proposal to create a "Department of Natural Resources," an agency that would combine Interior with the Forest Service and NOAA, removing those bureaus from the departments of Agriculture and Commerce, respectively.
That proposal never came to fruition. And Andrus’ successor, Interior Secretary James Watt, likewise saw his mission to overhaul the agency in the Reagan administration.
"I was given clear charges by the president. I was to bring about massive change in the way our federal lands and western waters were being managed so that all of Americans could benefit and enjoy them. All Americans. Not an elite group, but all Americans," Watt recalled in a 2004 interview with the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
Even outside pressure to remake the agency has found little traction.
Then-Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson (R) pushed for the combination of various Interior bureaus — the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and USDA’s Forest Service — in a 2001 report titled "Government at the Brink."
"The issues they address, such as managing forested areas and controlling wildfires, transcend their administrative boundaries and require increased collaboration with each other and with other entities, such as states and private landowners," Thompson wrote, endorsing a Government Accountability Office recommendation for Congress to "consider reorganizing or streamlining federal land management programs and agencies."
Despite those failures, some larger overhauls have occurred, such as former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s move to dismantle the Minerals Management Service, created by Watt during the Reagan administration.
Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Salazar divided the agency into three divisions to oversee offshore drilling’s development, enforcement and revenue collection (E&E News PM, May 19, 2010).
Former Interior officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations had warned against Zinke’s visionary plans last year, suggesting the effort could ultimately be a waste of taxpayer money(E&E News PM, March 16, 2018).
"It’s sort of like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s a huge time suck to do that, and as a political appointee, you have a very limited window to get things done," Rebecca Watson, who served as assistant secretary for land and minerals management in the George W. Bush administration, said at that time.
The money Interior needs now to proceed on reorganization will be harder to come by in the Democratic-controlled House, which means that strings may be more likely to be attached.
This week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a $13.8 billion Interior funding package that increased overall spending but eliminated the Trump administration’s request for reorganization. An accompanying committee report specifically blasted the idea of relocating some U.S. Geological Survey personnel (E&E News PM, May 21).
"A relocation of the magnitude proposed in the budget request would dramatically change the organization, have significant financial costs, and impact the Survey’s effectiveness and strategic national-level partnerships with Federal agencies, States, scientific organizations, and stakeholders," the report says.
Bernhardt vowed he "will work" with lawmakers on the USGS situation, which can perhaps be translated as "compromise with a smaller move."