Lawmakers clash over transparency at wildlife agency

House Republicans clashed with Democrats Wednesday over what the GOP sees as obstruction by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) of its investigations.

Democrats used the hearing of the Natural Resources Committee to blast their colleagues for wasting FWS and Interior Department resources with the investigations.

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The GOP’s requests over the last year and a half have centered on allegations that the agency enforces bird protection laws on oil and gas companies more zealously than wind energy companies. The panel has also investigated the endangered species listing of a flowering plant.

“Despite the issuance of subpoenas, the department continues to withhold and redact documents,” committee Chairman Doc HastingsDoc HastingsCongress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains Boehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform MORE (R-Wash.) said. “Even worse, the department is going out of its way to provide even less information to Congress than it is to others.”

Hastings showed some specific examples in which the FWS gave more information to media outlets requesting documents than to committee staff.

“Either the administration is incompetent, or it is going out of its way to expend time and money to withhold information from Congress,” he said.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), the panel’s top Democrat, accused Republicans of wasting time and money trying to gin up scandals.

“Here we are again chasing imaginary scandals,” DeFazio said.

He called the investigation a witch hunt and attributed the different disclosures to different staffers processing requests.

“One person redacts documents for one request, and they don’t have the identical person when they have someone else make the request to redact the same documents,” he said. “So you have, yes, inconsistency. Not unreasonable.”

He joked that lawmakers ought to try to drown FWS Director Dan Ashe to determine whether he’s a witch.

The day before the hearing, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell wrote to the panel to say its requests since the beginning of 2013 have netted more than 5,500 documents with only 60,000 pages, costing the department at least $2 million.

Ashe and Democrats repeatedly used those estimates to paint the Republican investigation as unnecessary and wasteful.

“Based on the title you’ve chosen for this hearing, I accept that you remain unsatisfied with our responsiveness,” Ashe said. “And I’ve got to say, that disappoints me. I believe we are making exceptional efforts to be responsive.”

For comparison’s sake, he said his agency spent the same amount of time responding to committee requests as it spent on an elephant poaching investigation that resulted in multiple arrests and more than a ton of illegal ivory being seized.

Republicans weren’t buying it.

“The excuses for the reasons for not being transparent … is either bureaucracy, we’re too busy or it costs too much,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “The only thing left is ‘the dog ate my homework.’ ”

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) speculated that if the FWS were more compliant with the panel’s requests, it would cost less.

“If we were getting straighter answers out of various levels of government, we wouldn’t have to spend as much time on the efforts,” he said.

But Democrats kept at it.

“Americans are sick and tired of the inaction in the United States House of Representatives,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) “A big part of what we’re doing that leads to this inaction is drawing up of phony scandals.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) apologized to Ashe and Hilary Tompkins, the Interior Department's top lawyer, for the Republicans’ behavior.

“It’s really embarrassing, frankly, what passes for oversight sometimes around here,” Huffman said. “It does seem to me sometimes that this committee would rather have the issue then get the information.”