Trump’s relocation of the Bureau of Land Management was part of a familiar Republican playbook

Former President Trump
Associated Press/Ben Gray

In his 1981 inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” The goal, plain and simple, was to paint the federal government as an unnecessary evil.

Reagan succeeded beyond his and his advisors’ wildest dreams, setting the political stage for a Republican Party that has elevated anti-government grievance to an article of faith. The destructive impacts of the ensuing cuts to Medicaid, housing aid, food assistance, unemployment compensation and other crucial programs are still with us.

The Trump administration, despite some vaguely unorthodox campaign rhetoric, followed the same playbook. Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney openly gloated about how many federal employees he was going to force out of a job by making their lives miserable.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, released last month, offers firsthand insights into the harm done by Trump and his lieutenants as they mistreated federal employees, both intentionally and through gross neglect. It lays out a very clear warning of what’s in store the next time a Republican president uses this same playbook—a warning every American should heed.

Almost as soon as he took office, Trump appointed federal agency leaders who openly despised the agencies they were appointed to lead. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry ran for president promising to abolish the department he later oversaw. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was given his job because he relentlessly sued the agency as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

As chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, I saw this play out at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages more than 245 million acres of public land—one in every 10 acres of the United States. To head the agency, Trump nominated a man named William Perry Pendley, who called BLM “the worst neighbor you can imagine” and, in a former position in the Reagan administration, had been caught underpricing coal mining leases to benefit industry at public expense.

One of Pendley’s top objectives under Trump was to move BLM staff headquarters from the Washington, D.C., area to Grand Junction, Colo. The plan was originally devised by former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid multiple ethical investigations less than a year into his tenure. The stated reason for BLM’s relocation was to get staff “closer to the lands and resources they manage,” which Pendley spoke of with great urgency despite 97 percent of the agency’s employees already working in the field

BLM isn’t as recognizable by name as the National Park Service, but the agency is hugely important to the fossil fuel industry, which leases millions of acres of public land for drilling and mining. One of the few groups to cheer the move was a fossil fuel lobbying group called the Western Energy Alliance, which pushes for more drilling and mining on federal land, weak environmental standards and low public royalties.

When my colleagues on the committee and I asked for analyses showing the need to relocate BLM headquarters, or the plans for keeping key staff in place to maintain institutional knowledge, or an understanding of how the move might impact the agency’s Black employees, more than 40 percent of whom worked in the headquarters office, we were either given perfunctory answers or met with total silence. The Committee sent letter after letter after letter after letter after letter asking for straight answers. In September 2019, we held a hearing on the plan where Mr. Pendley testified. In every instance, the administration dodged our questions and answered our requests with irrelevant information or already public documents.

In March 2020, under threat of subpoena, the administration finally sent the committee an approximately 20-page “Business Case for relocation. It offers little more than vague descriptions of the move’s alleged public benefits, no workforce impact analysis beyond wishful thinking (as GAO documented) and no realistic preview of the damage the move ultimately did.

As the Washington Post first reported, the new GAO analysis found that in the year following the move, BLM headquarters saw an increase of more than 200 staff vacancies, with the number of Black employees being reduced by more than half. BLM employees said the move impeded their ability to do their jobs, and those who hadn’t already quit described a team with no sense of leadership and little ability to function beyond day-to-day operations.

The unfortunate truth is that this was Republicanism in action. Moving BLM’s headquarters wasn’t designed to solve a real problem. Just as Reagan before him, Trump was happy to throw public employees under the bus in the name of the angry anti-government philosophy that still animates party leaders in Washington today.

Kicking dedicated career public servants to the curb and giving more power to huge corporations and their lobbyists is not a good path forward, but it’s what Republican leaders keep promising and keep doing. We should start paying closer attention to the consequences and remind ourselves that the alternative to a fairly treated, productive, hard-working federal workforce is not some free enterprise utopia. It’s the Robber Baron era all over again. 

Raúl M. Grijalva chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources. He has represented Southern Arizona in Congress since 2003.

Tags Bureau of Land Management Mick Mulvaney Rick Perry Ryan Zinke Scott Pruitt

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