Democrats inch closer to issuing subpoenas for Interior, EPA records

Democrats inch closer to issuing subpoenas for Interior, EPA records
© Greg Nash

House committees are nearing the tipping point on their threat to issue subpoenas to agencies such as the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency, arguing Trump officials are failing to meet deadlines for document requests.

Top lawmakers on the House Natural Resources Committee will meet this week to discuss subpoena actions they could soon take to force the Interior Department to respond to dozens of unmet records requests, a senior Democratic aide told The Hill.

ADVERTISEMENT

The move would be an escalation in the committee's attempt to obtain information from an agency that has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle.

Lawmakers are seeking information surrounding plans for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the Interior Department, to move its headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., as part of a bureauwide restructuring that would leave just 61 employees in Washington.

Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has on multiple occasions threatened to subpoena Interior for information on the topic. In early September, after a hearing with acting director of BLM William Pendley, the congressman called a subpoena “the next step.”

“The hearing validated some things we had been considering and also justifies us going further in the consideration of a subpoena to get those reorganization papers. I think that’s the next step,” Grijalva said at the time.

Near the end of the month, frustration with Interior had extended to both parties.

At a Sept. 26 hearing with Interior’s newly confirmed solicitor, Grijalva said the committee had sent 24 requests to Interior, with only three responses providing enough information to be deemed satisfactory.

“Interior’s refusal to cooperate means this committee cannot do the oversight envisioned in our Constitution,” Grijalva said at the hearing. “That has not stopped the Trump administration from delaying, obstructing and sometimes just ignoring our efforts to conduct oversight."

Rep. Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockSeveral GOP House members call to continue to withhold international conservation grants until oversight measures implemented Overnight Energy: Trump administration issues plan to reverse limits on logging in Tongass National Forest| Democrats inch closer to issuing subpoenas for Interior, EPA records| Trump's plan to boost ethanol miffs corn groups and the fossil fuel industry Democrats inch closer to issuing subpoenas for Interior, EPA records MORE (R-Calif.), a member of the committee, voiced similar concerns.

ADVERTISEMENT

“There are many of us on the other side of the aisle that may not share the Democrats’ policy positions but do recognize the role of oversight and are frustrated when legitimate requests, bipartisan requests are made and not answered,” he said at the hearing.

Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani told the committee at the time that Interior’s policy for responding to congressional requests was no different now than it was under the Obama administration. He promised lawmakers he would follow up on a number of requests they made, including a request for planning documents tied to Interior’s decision to move 300 Washington-based BLM employees to various offices across the West.

The senior staffer said many of those requests, some of which had Oct. 4 deadlines, have not been fulfilled.

A Department of Interior spokesperson compared the subpoena threat to "political pandering."

"Issuing a subpoena would be political pandering and a manufactured crisis by the Committee. Secretary Bernhardt offered to have regular meetings with the Committee Chairs -- an offer Chairman Grijalva has yet to accept," a spokesperson told The Hill. 

A potential Interior subpoena might also include a request for details on a southern Arizona housing development plan the agency signed off on in 2017. An agency whistleblower later said he was forced to greenlight the project.

Meanwhile, the head of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee is also considering taking subpoena action. The committee is in the process of discussing next steps after a two-week congressional recess resulted in few responses from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to a senior committee staffer.

Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonEPA watchdog hits back at agency's legal reasoning in dodging investigations Overnight Energy: Science committee staff dismiss EPA response after subpoena threat | Iowa pushes EPA to change ethanol plan | Bill Gates talks climate on Capitol Hill EPA offered 'non responsive' documents to House panel following subpoena threat, staff says MORE (D-Texas.), the committee chairwoman, has previously chastised the agency, accusing it of slow-walking most responses since she took the committee gavel in January.

Johnson sent a letter in July saying EPA's failure to provide requested information to her committee represented an “obstruction of Congress.” She threatened “compulsory measures” if the EPA didn’t provide previously requested information by July and August deadlines.

A senior committee staffer said most of those deadlines were not met in full.

An EPA spokesperson on Tuesday said the agency had offered the committee multiple briefings and been "transparent in their efforts" to answer questions.
 
"EPA has provided multiple witnesses – including Administrator [Andrew] Wheeler and the head of [the Office of Research and Development] – to testify at hearings in addition to numerous document productions and letter responses, so the accusation that we’ve been unresponsive is patently false. We will continue to work in good faith with the Committee as we have the past few months," a spokesperson told The Hill.
 
The spokesperson added that the acting head of the EPA's Office of Research and Development, Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, is slated to testify before the committee on the EPA’s science transparency rule in November.

Johnson's committee has been particularly interested in details about changing regulations for formaldehyde.

Lawmakers have scrutinized the chemical program following reports that the agency suppressed a 2017 report outlining the health risks associated with formaldehyde.

Johnson has also been pressing the EPA to explain why in December 2018 it removed formaldehyde and nine other chemical assessments from its program outlook.

Separately, Johnson has demanded information from the Commerce Department on two occasions related to a statement the agency released in September reprimanding its National Weather Service station in Birmingham, Ala., for contradicting President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE’s erroneous statements that Hurricane Dorian was forecast to hit Alabama.

In an Oct. 10 letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossTrump trade adviser pushes back on reports of US-China tariff deal China, US agree to reduce tariffs amid trade talks, Beijing says Income for poorest Americans fell faster than previously thought: study MORE, Johnson said the agency failed to respond to seven questions the science committee outlined in a previous letter about the hurricane statement. The new letter gave Commerce until Oct. 15 to set up a time for four key Commerce staffers to testify in front of the committee.

Johnson gave Commerce until Oct. 18 to answer her remaining questions.

This story has been updated. Rebecca Beitsch contributed.