Congress pumps brakes on Interior push to relocate Bureau of Land Management

The Interior Department says it is moving ahead with plans to relocate a Washington-based agency to Colorado after getting the green light from Congress, but lawmakers say no such approval has been granted.

The Department of the Interior is preparing to move 27 top officials at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., while scattering other D.C.-based employees to existing offices out West.

The House Appropriations Committee was given 30 days to submit questions to Interior about the move and the reallocation of $5 million to cover related costs. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Lawmakers had a number of questions: What are the benefits to Interior and the American public? What problem will this solve? Why was BLM singled out for this move?

The 30-day period ended on Aug. 15, and Interior says it will now proceed with plans to move about 300 employees to Western states after answering all questions from lawmakers.

But some lawmakers beg to differ.

“The administration’s characterization of Congress having ‘blessed’ BLM’s relocation plan is false,” Amanda Yanchury, spokeswoman for Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumPelosi heading to Madrid for UN climate change convention Overnight Energy: Mark Ruffalo pushes Congress on 'forever chemicals' | Lawmakers spar over actor's testimony | House Dems unveil renewable energy tax plan | Funding for conservation program passes Senate hurdle DC-area Democrats push to block funding for Bureau of Land Management relocation MORE (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Interior Department, said in a statement to The Hill.

“Interior’s initial relocation plan was significantly lacking in the details necessary for the Committee to evaluate this proposal. That’s why Congress, in a bipartisan and bicameral manner, requested more information — to ensure the transparency and accountability of the administration’s actions,” she added. 

BLM argues the move will position its staff closer to the lands the agency manages, but critics contend it will simply move high-level career staff out of D.C. and further away from the corridors of power, following a similar decision to relocate Department of Agriculture (USDA) research staff to a new outpost in the Kansas City area.

ADVERTISEMENT

“The Trump administration continues to undermine the capacity of non-partisan agencies to conduct research, collect data, and make decisions based on science, rather than ideology,” Rep. Chellie PingreeRochelle (Chellie) PingreeOvernight Energy: EPA chief touts benefits of deregulation for environment | Trump officials weaken fish protections Interior chief once lobbied against | USDA watchdog to probe handling of climate reports USDA's internal watchdog to probe allegedly buried climate change reports Congress pumps brakes on Interior push to relocate Bureau of Land Management MORE (D-Maine), who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement to The Hill. 

“As we’ve seen with affected USDA researchers, uprooting employees is this administration’s strategy for eliminating branches of government since it creates hardship and people are forced to quit,” she added. “It’s outrageous that this administration has now targeted BLM employees because the Interior Secretary— a former coal and mining lobbyist—doesn’t believe in the agency’s mission of preserving public lands.”

BLM retirees penned a letter to lawmakers on Tuesday arguing the move would “functionally dismantle” the agency. They also asked the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to hold a hearing on the move.

About 4 percent of BLM’s 10,000 employees are based in Washington. Nearly all of them would be transferred elsewhere under Interior’s plan, leaving just 61 workers in Washington, according to a memo to Congress from Interior.

"Now that the Department of the Interior has met its commitment to provide Congress with an opportunity to review its reorganization plan for the Bureau of Land Management, we look forward to moving ahead with a thoughtfully considered and carefully developed plan that will place the BLM's leadership closer to the lands and resources they manage,” an Interior spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.

"We have answered every single question asked by the Committee. No additional follow up questions were received," the agency said.

But details beyond what is covered by Interior’s July 16 memo have been sparse.

Lawmakers say their questions range from basic logistics like finding office space and the overall timeline to bigger picture questions like whether it is even legal to move the agency’s headquarters without congressional approval. 

Those concerns were expressed in a “four corners letter” signed by majority and minority appropriations leaders in both chambers. 

“It’s absurd for the administration to assume Congressional approval when the Committee has not yet received sufficient answers to outstanding questions about the plan’s feasibility, costs, legality, and personnel issues. This is clearly an attempt by the Trump administration to steamroll ahead with this plan without regard to the concerns of a co-equal branch of government,” said Yanchury, McCollum's spokeswoman.

House Appropriations Committee staffers say talks with BLM about the request are ongoing and that the congressional panels were under no obligation to meet a 30-day timeline for approving BLM’s financial plans related to the relocation effort.

Interior has brushed aside legal concerns surrounding the move and has not answered several questions about when employees will have to decide whether they will accept the reassignment and when the new headquarters in Grand Junction will be open.

William Pendley, the top official at BLM, told staff in an email obtained by The Hill that they can expect more details soon. 

“During the last 30 days, we have continued to develop an implementation plan for the move while ensuring the continuity of operations across the Bureau of Land Management. This email is to let you know that more information will be forthcoming shortly,” Pendley wrote on Aug. 16. “We look forward to working with you to make the process as smooth and transparent for everyone as possible.”

Democrats also have questions over whether the move is legal.

McCollum’s office pointed to a section of federal law that says “all offices attached to the seat of government shall be exercised in the District of Columbia, and not elsewhere, except as otherwise provided by law.”

In a response to McCollum shared with The Hill, Interior noted that agencies like the Food and Drug Administration are headquartered outside D.C., in the nearby suburbs. 

Interior said an office attached to the seat of government should be interpreted as “an executive department, a term defined elsewhere in the U.S. Code to include the Department of the Interior, but not its component parts.” 

“The provision referenced by your staff is not a bar to making this change, which will promote greater efficiency and use of taxpayer resources,” Cole Rojewski, director of Interior’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, wrote to McCollum, adding that having every federal government office located in D.C. would be “impractical and unreasonable.” 

Disagreement over the move is expected to spill into September as lawmakers work on appropriations for fiscal 2020, which begins on Oct 1. The House Natural Resources Committee will also hold a hearing in September to discuss the planning process behind BLM’s move.

Updated at 9:37 a.m.