Issue Backgrounder: In 2019, Watch for Aggressive Energy-Enviro Oversight By Democratic House
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2019 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.
Congressional oversight authority is one of the strongest tools available to a party that doesn’t hold both chambers and the White House. The party holding a particular chamber controls its committees, which in turn have the power to hold hearings on whatever they please, augmented by things such as subpoena power and appropriations.
So when Democrats take control of the U.S. House in the coming session of Congress, expect them to use their new oversight authority to make an impact — including on energy and environment issues.
Oversight hearings, done well, can garner big media attention and have big political impact. On the environmental beat, for instance, some may remember the frenzy of oversight activity in 1981-82 with then-administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford (mother of the current Supreme Court justice).
Gorsuch was busy downsizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and deregulating everything she could. The result was a spate of really bad press, some losing lawsuits and her eventual resignation. The episode substantially arrested the Reagan administration’s drive to favor industry interests over environmental health.
|President Ronald Reagan and EPA Administrator-Designate Anne Gorsuch in March of 1981. Gorsuch became a lightning rod on environmental policy, leading to congressional oversight hearings and, ultimately, her resignation. Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.
Exercising Congressional oversight authority takes considerable skill and will. As examples, witness masters of the craft Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee for years, and his successor, Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
Now, as Democrats prepare to take over the House in January, they have already declared their intention to wield oversight to the fullest. Republicans have plans to push back, but the conflict may only energize the story.
Expect some important oversight hearings to focus on environment (may require subscription) and energy issues. Many of the incoming chairmen have spelled out in some detail their oversight agendas (although these may change). A look at these prospective agendas is a good guide to what news will be coming to the environment and energy beat in 2019.
Natural Resources Committee: Drama over Interior
Count on some sensational oversight hearings from the House Natural Resources Committee in 2019. The only question is whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will disarm them by resigning first. The drama has started (may require subscription) well in advance of the new Congress.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has served as ranking minority member on the panel since 2015, and is considered a sure thing to take over the chairmanship. Politically, Grijalva is ranked as pretty progressive. He has been as consistently conservationist as the outgoing chairman, Rob Bishop (R-Utah), is pro-extraction.
Even before the election, Grijalva was promising aggressive oversight hearings into Interior Department operations and policies under President Donald Trump. If there was any lingering doubt about whether he would get up in Ryan Zinke’s face, that vanished when he published a Nov. 30 op-ed in USA Today. The headline read: “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke must resign. His multiple scandals show he's unfit to serve.”
|Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is likely to be on the hot seat with aggressive oversight hearings in the new Congress. Above, Zinke attends a 2018 Memorial Day ceremony at Black Hills National Cemetery, S.D. Photo: Interior Dept./Sherman Hogue. Click to enlarge.
Zinke’s response raised eyebrows. He fired off a Tweet suggesting Grijalva was a drunk and referring to a 2015 settlement (subscription required) of a hostile workplace complaint from a Grijalva staffer. Zinke’s ad hominem attack then brought speculation that he wouldn’t have done it unless he expected to leave office soon. That rumor has been in the mill since one of the ethics allegations against Zinke was referred to the Justice Dept.
So when and if Zinke and Grijalva face off in the committee room, the TV cameras will be there. There will certainly be discussion of some of the 15 or so ethics investigations currently underway over Zinke’s conduct (may require subscription) in office. Zinke would likely be asked to answer publicly questions that have so far been kept behind closed doors, such as about a land deal with the chairman of multinational corporation Halliburton.
But there will certainly be boring policy stuff, too. Possibly a lot of it. In an interview with National Parks Traveler, Grijalva said the Interior Department’s use (or abuse) of science in its policy-making would be a key subject. Grijalva also said he wants “to shed some daylight on the consequences of an extraction-only agenda” and how it affects people who use public lands for other things.
Another good bet is a hearing on Interior’s decision to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. That decision, which followed a Trump marching order, is now in court.
One of Grijalva’s biggest gripes is Interior’s unresponsiveness to panel Dems’ requests for information over the last two years. He promises that once he has subpoena power, that will change.
And of course, another juicy target might be the kerfuffle over replacement of Interior’s long-standing Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall. News accounts in October that the Trump administration planned to replace her were met with outrage, and then denial by Zinke’s office. It might have been sloppy journalism to start with, or might not. Without investigation we may never know.
A Zinke resignation wouldn’t really disarm the looming oversight. First, it may not be in the cards. But waiting in the wings is his deputy, David Bernhardt (may require subscription), whose background as a former oil lobbyist promises little change from Zinke policies.
Energy Committee: Investigating climate rollback
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s wide jurisdiction includes environmental agencies like EPA, as well as laws like the Clean Air Act and the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup law. And incoming chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) inherits a tradition of strong oversight that goes back to former Chairman Dingell.
The Clean Air Act, you may remember, is the legal crux of EPA’s jurisdiction over greenhouse emissions. Pallone was one of the three chairmen-to-be who announced on Nov. 14 that they would be holding coordinated hearings on climate. This series of hearings may focus more on validating the problem and mapping out solutions.
A possible focus of Rep. Pallone’s oversight
could be the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Pallone has criticized EPA’s implementation
of the new TSCA on chemical risk evaluation.
A good clue on Pallone’s oversight agenda, though, came in a Nov. 20 letter to EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler demanding documentation (subscription required) of how the agency had made and justified its decision rolling back greenhouse emissions controls.
The letter outlined three areas of focus: the withdrawal of the Obama Clean Power Plan, the rollback of vehicle fuel efficiency and pollution standards, and the rollback of requirements that the oil and gas industry monitor and repair methane leaks.
Stay tuned for EPA’s response, and the Dems’ response to that response.
House Energy’s oversight tradition has historically emphasized the work of its Oversight Subcommittee. The expected chair of that panel is Diana DeGette (D-Colo.). Expect leadership also from Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), likely chair of the Energy Subcommittee on Environment.
Another possible focus of Pallone’s oversight could be the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, over which his panel has jurisdiction. New Jersey as a state has long struggled with toxic chemical pollution, and Pallone had personally been a leader in the major TSCA rewrite that was enacted in June 2016. He has criticized EPA’s implementation of the new TSCA, for example, on chemical risk evaluation.
EPA has been widely accused of foot-dragging on TSCA implementation, and it would be fruitful ground for oversight.
Science Committee: ‘Where science is respected’
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) is in line to chair the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Expect hearings supporting science and calling onto the carpet Trump administration officials who work to undermine it.
Johnson’s predecessor, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), for six years worked to undermine the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. During that time, as ranking minority member, Johnson mounted sharp and outspoken pushback against the anti-science GOPers dominating the panel.
Rep. Johnson has also indicated publicly
that she wants to pay attention to climate change,
promising strenuous grilling of Trump officials.
Although it does have some legislative jurisdiction, the House Science Committee is very much a messaging committee — holding hearings, especially oversight hearings, is what it does.
In media interviews since the Nov. 6 election, Johnson has been somewhat vague about her priority targets for oversight hearings, partly because she had not yet been officially installed as chairman. Her eventual appointment is seen as inevitable, according to most sources.
Judging by what she has said, however, putting the science back in the Science Committee will be a top priority. In an interview with ClimateWire (subscription required), she said wanted to restore the panel as "a place where science is respected and recognized."
Johnson has also indicated publicly that she wants to pay attention to climate change. Barely a week after the election, she joined two other House committee chairs in promising prompt hearings on climate, coordinated over a two-day period, that would focus on the climate change problem and how to address it.
The announcement was made with Grijalva and Pallone. They promised strenuous grilling of Trump officials in aggressive oversight (may require subscription).
Some promising targets for House Science oversight are obvious.
For instance, a recent spate of science-based reports stressed the gravity of the world’s climate crisis. Among them were the multi-agency National Climate Assessment (may require subscription) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, “Global Warming of 1.5 ºC.”
But Trump and many of his top agency officials have downplayed or dismissed such science. Officials like EPA’s Wheeler could be called to account for such remarks.
Under Trump, EPA has implemented a series of anti-science measures. One is purging the committees of outside science advisers who are supposed to give the agency independent science. Another is the proposed “secret science” rule that disallows much of the important science EPA has used for environmental health rulemaking.
These actions can be explored via oversight. The committee can demand documentation of the decisions, including any evidence of industry and White House influence in making them.
Climate Committee: Restoring a show panel?
What Climate Committee, you say? Well, that’s the point. There’s some chance the incoming House Democratic leadership could create a new special committee on climate.
It’s a story, even if it does not yet exist as a committee. The story really starts back in 2007, when Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) first became speaker of the house. With a Democrat majority, she created the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. It lasted until 2011, when the GOP regained the majority.
It was chaired by former Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who eventually moved to the Senate. Pelosi’s move to set up the committee was controversial among Dems, because other chairmen worried it would infringe on their jurisdiction. Pelosi secured their assent by depriving the committee of any legislative power. It was purely a show committee, meant for messaging.
So in 2018, when it seemed likely that Dems would win back the House, discussion about a climate committee started buzzing again. Pelosi’s office said publicly that she intended to form one — even before the “Green New Deal” staged a sit-in in her office demanding that she do it. But as soon as the sit-in made headlines, the expectant House committee chairs expressed jurisdictional heartburn (may require subscription). Pallone, for one, said: “I don’t think it’s necessary” (may require subscription).
Stay tuned on this one. But Pelosi may arrive at the same solution she did before: have the climate committee be used for hearings, perhaps oversight, messaging and perhaps consensus building. Few seem to remember that the House passed a climate bill once before.
Perhaps it will have to be only a show committee. If the House does come up with new climate legislation, the real challenge will be getting it through a GOP-controlled Senate that seems right now opposed to any climate legislation.
Infrastructure & Oversight Committees: Limited enviro oversight expected
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has the politically important job of assembling big bills full of water or highway projects. It does hold hearings on the needs or budget requests for such projects. But it does not do a lot of oversight in the classic sense.
Chairman-to-be Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has expressed ambition to assemble a new infrastructure bill in collaboration with the Trump administration, but the challenge will be finding “real money” to pay for it. The panel will probably not have an activist oversight agenda.
Meanwhile, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform does have some legislative jurisdiction, but oversight is what it does. Incoming Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) has a long agenda of things he hopes to investigate, most of them involving Trump administration misdeeds. But almost none of them feature environment or energy.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's Issue Backgrounders and TipSheet columns, directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet and also compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 45. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.