Democrats are interested in talking to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, above, about a land deal in Whitefish, Mont. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
Three likely incoming Democratic chairs of House committees overseeing environmental issues vowed to scrutinize the Trump administration’s actions on climate change and bring before them top administration officials who they think have escaped adequate oversight under their Republican colleagues.
After eight years out of power in the House, Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tex.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) are expected to lead the committees on Science, Space, and Technology; Natural Resources; and Energy and Commerce, respectively, after serving as the panels’ ranking Democrats.
In a slate of interviews, they outlined an expansive agenda to put a hot spotlight on the Trump administration’s rollback of President Obama’s climate agenda and to delve deep into alleged misconduct of officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department and the Housing and Urban Development Department.
At the top of that list is Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Grijalva wants Zinke to testify before his committee about discussions surrounding a deal in Whitefish, Mont., between the Zinkes’ family foundation and Halliburton chairman David Lesar along with other developers. Democrats asked Interior’s acting inspector general to launch a probe of the matter in late June after Politico first reported on the deal. The watchdog office last month referred the matter to the Justice Department.
Trump said last week he was “looking at” the allegations against Zinke but that overall he was “very happy with most of my Cabinet.” Zinke has denied the allegations as “vicious attacks.”
The planned oversight is in line with the overall aim by the incoming House majority to scrutinize President Trump and his underlings on subjects such as the president’s tax returns and alleged payments by Trump’s former lawyer to women who said they had affairs with him.
Some agencies are already gearing up for an onslaught of congressional demands. The EPA recently hired two lawyers who are prepared to handle document requests, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.
An EPA spokesman, who declined to comment directly on the two hires, said there had not been a spike in hiring at the agency due to the prospect of greater oversight.
While agencies prepare, there is already a turf battle within the new Democratic majority over how to wield its power to address what scientists say is an ecological crisis the world has little time to solve.
At the moment, even the forum for a climate debate is up for debate.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), looking to corral support and again serve as speaker of the House, said she “strongly” supports reestablishing a special committee on climate change.
[Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says she has the votes to become the next House speaker]
By doing so, she is meeting one of the demands from a group of protesters — one of whom was Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) — who occupied her office Tuesday. First impaneled by Pelosi in 2007, the select climate committee was scrapped four years later when Republicans took the House.
But Pallone and Johnson have voiced apprehension about duplicating the efforts of their own panels.
“We have climate change champions leading all these committees,” Pallone said.
Johnson, meanwhile, wondered what a select committee, which was purely a fact-finding panel the last time around, could achieve with Trump regularly dismissing the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the globe.
“I don’t know what a special select committee would do to change the executive branch,” Johnson said.
A day after Pelosi tweeted her support for creating a special climate committee, the three ranking Democrats announced that they plan to hold two days’ worth of hearings on climate change early next year. Pallone said Democrats want to review some of Trump’s splashier climate-related moves, such as the plans to pull out of the Paris climate accord and to repeal greenhouse-gas limits on coal-fired plants.
They also want to bear down some smaller-bore but still neglected issues.
Pallone wants to determine whether the Trump administration is following legally mandated requirements to review potentially dangerous chemicals and issue energy-efficiency standards.
Johnson said she aims to review a proposal to ban the use of certain studies in rulemaking that rely on confidential health information.
And Grijalva said he was interested in conducting hearings on a proposed reorganization plan of Interior, which he worries may break up some “pretty well-functioning” offices.
“It’s a long list that has been dormant,” Grijalva said.
That alone probably will not be enough for the progressives. A handful of freshmen, including Ocasio-Cortez, are pressuring Democratic leaders to craft an ambitious plan to take the entire nation to 100 percent renewable energy within 10 years.
In addition to answers about the Montana land deal, Grijalva said he wants to know more about an incident last month in which Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced that one of his top appointees would become Interior’s acting inspector general. Days later, Interior officials called Carson’s statement “100 percent false” and said they would not hire HUD official Suzanne Israel Tufts.
“The coincidence of the timing, I would question,” Grijalva said, noting that Carson’s statement came shortly after Interior acting inspector general Mary Kendall referred allegations concerning Zinke to Justice.
Pallone said he wanted to know more about the work of Nancy Beck, formerly an executive at the lobbying outfit American Chemistry Council, at the EPA.
Even the tenure of Scott Pruitt, Trump’s first EPA administrator who resigned in July amid ethics investigations, may again be scrutinized.
“My concern with the EPA is: How was Mr. Pruitt able to get away with all he got away with and remain there?” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who is set to take over the gavel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Asked about future congressional investigations, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift declined to directly address the issue in an email.
“We have a number of bipartisan priorities that we work with Congress on and we will continue to work with them,” she said.
House Democrats will also have the opportunity to grill corporate executives. Already, environmental groups have called for Democrats to investigate ExxonMobil for allegedly misleading the public about climate change.
“If you’re a company, and there’s been outreach before by the minority on these committees, then that gives you a pretty good indication that they’re going to want to talk to you,” said Aaron Cutler, a former lawyer for Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who now works at the law firm Hogan Lovells.
But Democrats will have to balance their impulse to investigate Trump’s environmental deputies with their desire to try to work with the president on a long-promised infrastructure bill.
Pallone expressed interest in working with the White House to improve drinking-water systems, while Grijalva said he wants to finish a plan kicked off by congressional Republicans to use federal oil and gas revenue to fix leaky pipes and craggy roads in national parks.
“This is an area where we can work with the president,” Pallone said.
But at a news conference this week, Trump threatened to take a “warlike posture” if Democrats investigated him and his team.
And while lawmakers have the power to demand documents when they’re in the majority, Alston & Bird partner Kevin Minoli said it is important to keep things in perspective. Minoli, who led the EPA’s response to congressional oversight during the Obama administration, it, noted that members of Congress often set tight deadlines of two weeks or less.
But, he cautioned, “It doesn’t mean that when they write that letter that the agency is going to provide them the next day, or even ever.”
Ben Guarino and Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.