The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Interior Department is running mainly without Senate-confirmed leaders. It just opted to keep it that way.

At the Interior Department, more than half a dozen major divisions lack Senate-confirmed leaders. But that’s not slowing the department down: On Tuesday, acting Secretary David Bernhardt amended a secretarial order that will allow these appointees to keep serving until the end of May, if need be.

The unusual move means that some of the most influential decision-makers at Interior will never have faced formal Senate scrutiny. The original order, which then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed on Nov. 13, stipulated that eight officials could head major sections of the department even though they had not been confirmed. The group includes principal deputy solicitor Daniel Jorjani; National Park Service deputy director P. Daniel Smith; and the Bureau of Land Management’s deputy director for policy and programs Brian Steed.

“This Order is Intended to ensure uninterrupted management and execution of the duties of these vacant non-career positions during the Presidential transition pending Senate-confirmation of new non-career officials,” Zinke wrote in the original order.

Along with the Justice Department, Interior has the highest level of vacancies in the federal government. Both departments have only filled 41 percent of their Senate-confirmed positions, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group.

Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, individuals are only allowed to serve in an acting capacity for a set period of time. Jorjani began serving as principal deputy solicitor on May 26, 2017, which meant that under the law, he was slated to step down on Dec. 6.

Asked about Jorjani, Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in an email that the department was complying with the Vacancies Act because he was delegated nearly all the duties of Interior’s top lawyer “without assuming the vacant office.”

“It is legally possible for the functions of a vacant office to be carried out indefinitely by another individual pursuant to a delegation by the agency head,” she said.

But Kate Kelly, public lands director for the liberal advocacy group Center for American Progress, said in an interview that Interior officials were flouting the Senate’s right to weigh in on political appointments.

“This is a situation where they’re ignoring Congress and eroding democratic norms,” Kelly said. “The Interior Department is operating much more like a fiefdom, that way."