Zinke gives Interior tips for handling the shutdown

By Kelsey Brugger | 09/28/2023 07:17 AM EDT

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke boasted this week about his actions during the last government shutdown.

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.).

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) speaking with reporters at the Capitol this week about the prospect of a government shutdown. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Trump-era Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke bragged that he approved energy permits during the 2018-2019 government shutdown. He also kept national parks open, a move later deemed illegal.

Zinke, now a Montana Republican House member, stood by Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Tuesday during a press conference about the impending shutdown.

“I can tell you the secretary has a lot of latitude in what we deem critical and essential,” Zinke said. “When I was secretary, I didn’t shut down the parks. I didn’t shut down inspections on our oil rigs. I didn’t shut down transportation. I didn’t shut down permits.”


The last government shutdown lasted 35 days, from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019. Zinke left office in early January amid the shutdown.

“It was a shitshow,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said of Zinke’s handling of the situation.

Interior directed “essential” workers to continue approving oil drilling permits and planning oil lease sales. Grijalva — who became Natural Resources chair in 2019 and had a contentious relationship with Zinke — complained about trash piling up at the national parks kept open through entry fees.

Should Congress fail to pass a funding deal this time, something that appears increasingly likely, the oil and gas industry does not expect the same treatment this time around.

“The Trump administration didn’t want oil and gas operations to stop,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance. “Fast-forward to the Biden administration, we have a very different political will.”

The concern is pitting the oil and gas lobby against the far-right contingent of the Republican Party, which tends to favor fossil fuel extraction but is also balking at preventing a shutdown.

“The handful of Republicans in Congress standing in the way of a deal basically want to stand with President [Joe] Biden in owning some of the energy inflation caused by his administration’s efforts to slow-walk oil and natural gas,” Sgamma said.

Interior declined to comment Wednesday on its shutdown plans. The White House is hosting a call Thursday on contingency efforts, Grijalva said.

In recent days, the White House has been issuing a flurry of press releases listing several potential shutdown casualties. “An Extreme Republican Shutdown Would Hurt Communities All Across the Country,” one of them reads.

Biden is expected to follow the Obama approach and shutter national parks, museums and monuments — which in 2013 prompted nearly 100 lawmakers and veterans to storm a barricaded World War II Memorial in Washington.

The awkward and public incident left an impression on Zinke, according to his successor David Bernhardt, and Zinke vowed not to do the same.

“When a shutdown becomes political, you can do a lot of harm as a secretary to the innocent,” Zinke said Tuesday.

The Government Accountability Office found that Interior violated the Antideficiency Act when it used entry fees to keep the national parks open.

“Instead of carrying out the law, Interior improperly imposed its own will,” said Thomas Armstrong, GAO’s general counsel.

Bernhardt, who was Zinke’s deputy and later became secretary, rejected the GAO’s finding. “We completely disagree,” Bernhardt said in 2019.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has asked current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to use fees to keep parks open if agencies shut down next week.

Grijalva blamed the GOP for the new shutdown threat. “They are the ones playing Russian roulette. They are the ones trying to shoot themselves and the American people in the head,” said Grijalva.

“It’s a painful process. I’ve been through it before. It’s not a show of strength. It’s a show of weakness.”