Congress is demanding answers about a staggering amount of vacancies in President Trump's Interior Department.
About a half-dozen high-level positions in the department sit vacant. And only 47 percent of top positions — ones that require confirmation from the Senate — have been filled within a department that manages 500 million acres of surface area nationwide.
Only one other major federal department, the Department of Homeland Security, has more top-level vacancies, according to a collaboration between The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service that is tracking about 700 key executive branch nominations.
The vacancies are drawing scrutiny from both parties. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, took up his concerns with Trump himself about the administration’s habit of relying on officials who have not been vetted by Congress.
“Deferring top leadership positions to individuals in acting capacity harms our constitutional system of checks and balances by removing the Senate’s ability to properly vet and confirm nominees,” Grijalva wrote to Trump in a June 12 letter provided to The Energy 202. He is calling on the president to come up with a schedule for nominating Interior Department officials.
Many of the posts have been left unoccupied for so long that they are weighing on the mood of career staff. “We know that morale is very poor,” said Peter Jenkins, a senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an environmental nonprofit group that works with potential government whistleblowers.
Although the White House did not respond to a request for comment, Trump has said he likes installing acting officials high in government because it provides him the flexibility he wants to move personnel around.
“I like acting because I can move so quickly,” Trump said in an interview with CBS News in February. “It gives me more flexibility.”
Vacant positions include the director of the National Park Service, responsible for overseeing about 85 million acres of recreational areas and historical landmarks. Trump is bringing security and logistical challenges to that agency with his plans to deliver a speech from the Lincoln Memorial, a Park Service site, during what in the past has been a nonpartisan Independence Day celebration.
The lack of a Park Service leader is troubling to Senate Energy Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “When you think about it, what was the big initiative at the end of last year? Let’s do something with park maintenance,” Murkowski told The Post in February. “Would sure be great to have the head of the parks in order to execute this initiative. Yup. It worries me.”
There is also no director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency making massive changes to the way it implements the Endangered Species Act. Among the several changes that worry conservationists is a proposed end to the practice of extending strict protections to plants and animals regardless of whether they are listed as endangered or threatened.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management also does not have a permanent director, a position appointed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Until recently, the agency had been working on its own major plan to open both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to offshore drilling. Only in the face of furious opposition from state and local leaders in coastal states, including many Republicans, did the Trump administration put that plan on hold in April.
Yet the president has not nominated anyone to fill many empty positions in the Interior Department this Congress, despite doing so during its past session.
Among the officials in nomination limbo are David Vela, who was once tapped to be National Park Service director but who is now serving as the agency’s deputy director, a role that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Vela’s nomination to be NPS chief sailed through committee last year but was never brought up for a final Senate floor vote.
The administration still plans to nominate Vela, according to two individuals familiar with the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement had not yet been made. But five months in the new Congress, Trump has not formally renominated him.
Bernhardt has resorted to some unusual -- and what some call legally questionable -- maneuvers to allow his deputies to run departments without getting Senate confirmation.
Bernhardt has several times amended an order that his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, signed to keep handpicked deputies in place without Senate approval, since taking the reins of the department in January — first as acting secretary before being confirmed by the Senate in April.
But the order stops short of calling many of those officials “acting,” which avoids legal requirements under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act that limit the length of time Senate-confirmed posts can be filled in an acting capacity to no more than 300 days during a president’s first year or to more than 210 days after that.
“They're just evading that process and they're evading the Senate advice and consent process,” Jenkins said.
So the order ends up giving an individual such as Casey Hammond, the top official at the Bureau of Land Management, the long-winded title of principal deputy assistant secretary of land and minerals management exercising the authority of the BLM director.
But the legality of the arrangement is being called into question by critics of the administration, who say some of the decisions being made by delegated officials lack the force of law.
PEER is pressing the department’s watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, to review the legality of policies being put in place by officials “exercising the authority” of vacant offices at both the National Park Service and the BLM.
Most recently, in a complaint filed June 10, PEER protested the rollback of a plan meant to protect a chickenlike bird called the sage grouse across oil- and gas-rich portions of six Western states. The decision came from the office of the BLM director — even though, officially, it sits vacant.
Nancy DiPaolo, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, said by email it was “in the process of reviewing the matter.”
With Trump’s inspector general nominee still tied up in Congress, that office also does not have a Senate-confirmed leader.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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— Trump still owes D.C. money after his inauguration: As the Trump administration makes plans for an overhauled Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capital, a change that’s expected to increase security costs for the annual event, the president has an outstanding bill from another massive event in the district. The Trump administration and Congress owe D.C. more than $7 million following the president’s inauguration, which had a total cost of $27.3 million. “The president’s appearance on the Mall is expected to bring with it a host of new security expenses and logistical headaches, requiring security for his movements and potentially cutting off visitors’ access to nearby Metro stations,” The Post’s Peter Jamison reports. “No estimate has been produced of the added costs, though National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said security expenses would be shared by the White House, the Park Service and U.S. Park Police.”
— Iran threatens to increase enriched uranium stockpile: Amid escalating tensions with the United States, Iran has threatened to increase in the next 10 days its supply of enriched uranium to above the limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal, The Post’s Rick Noack reports. The announcement comes after the Trump administration accused Iran of attacking oil tankers in a strategic waterway. “Iran said it had already sped up its production of the low-enriched uranium used in nuclear power plants,” Noack writes. “Iran has denied claims by the Trump administration and others that it is seeking to build a nuclear bomb. But on Monday, Iran also announced enrichment targets that would put it in the proximity of the levels needed to build a weapon. It was unclear how long Iran would need to reach those targets.”
Meanwhile: U.S. allies Japan and Germany have called on the Trump administration to provide more concrete proof that Iran conducted the attack on the two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that evidence exists. “There is no doubt,” Pompeo said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “The intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence. The world will come to see much of it, but the American people should rest assured we have high confidence with respect to who conducted these attacks as well as half a dozen other attacks throughout the world over the past 40 days.” Pompeo’s weekend remarks were “implicit acknowledgment that he has work to do convincing the world the U.S. accusations against Iran, which has denied responsibility,” The Post’s Carol Morello, Kareem Fahim and Simon Denyer report.
— Trump order will cut number of science advisory boards: The president signed an executive order late Friday that will reduce the number of government advisory committees by a third across all federal agencies. But as NBC News reports, critics argue it’s the administration’s “latest effort to undermine science-based and fact-supported decision-making.” In an email, White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere told NBC that Trump “believes it is time to once more review and eliminate ones that are not relevant and providing valuable services so that we are good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”
— House panel investigating Grijalva: The House Ethics Committee is looking into allegations that Grijalva created a hostile workplace. The review continues even after the panel voted late last year that a $48,395 settlement paid to a female employee who made the allegations was “permissible,” E&E News reports. “E&E News reviewed documents that show the Ethics Committee has recently reached out to at least one former staffer for any information regarding whether Grijalva had sexually harassed or discriminated against staff or retaliated against anyone who might have reported the misconduct,” per the report. Grijalva, who was recently informed about the ongoing investigation, said he’s “not worried about it at all … I feel very secure about where we are.”
— G-20 wants to address plastic waste in oceans: The environmental ministers of the top 20 world economies are calling for “urgent attention” to address the volume of marine plastic littering the world’s oceans, The Post’s Simon Denyer reports, but he adds they “failed to agree on concrete measures or targets to phase out single-use plastics.” “Marine litter and especially marine plastic litter and microplastics, is a matter requiring urgent attention given its adverse impacts on marine ecosystems, livelihoods and industries including fisheries, tourism and shipping, and potentially on human health,” the ministers said Sunday. The environment ministers, however, merely urged “voluntary actions” by members of the G-20.
— Could we borrow your beach for a dead whale? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries has started asking state waterfront landowners to volunteer to allow whale carcasses to decompose on their property. The agency says it has run out of places to take gray whales that have repeatedly washed up this year. “By doing so, landowners can support the natural process of the marine environment, and skeletons left behind can be used for educational purposes, officials said,” according to the Associated Press. “On the U.S. West coast, about 70 whales have been found dead this year along California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, the most since 2000. About five were found on British Columbia beaches. Still, that’s a small fraction of the total number because most sink or wash up in remote areas and are unrecorded.”
— Dolphins are dying along the Gulf Coast, too: Since February, at least 279 dolphins have been stranded along the Gulf Coast, and NOAA says 98 percent of the mammals have died. The number is triple the usual number of stranded dolphins, the Associated Press reports. “Scientists will investigate whether lingering effects from the 2010 BP oil spill and more immediate effects from low salinity because of freshwater flowing from high rivers and a Louisiana spillway contributed to the deaths, said Teri Rowles, coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program,” per the AP.
— Unprecedented ice melt in the Arctic: Temperatures in Greenland rose up to 40 degrees above normal in the middle of last week. Meanwhile, there has been record melting recently in the Arctic Ocean as well as for the Greenland ice sheet. For the Arctic specifically, the current ice coverage is the lowest on record for mid-June since weather satellites started monitoring sea since in 1979, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. Zachary Labe, a climate researcher at the University of California at Irvine, called it “another series of extreme events consistent with the long-term trend of a warming, changing Arctic.”
— Tesla’s troubles: The electric automaker is facing a slew of issues just as its competitors are ramping up their efforts with their own electric vehicle models. After struggling over the past year with production and delivery problems, Tesla is facing financial and safety concerns. But unlike Tesla, traditional automakers in the United States and abroad have “numerous factories that generally run smoothly and are primed to produce new vehicles,” The Post’s Faiz Siddiqui reports. Rohan G. Williamson, a finance professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said the company is “no longer the nice shiny object and no one else has one like it.”
— Decision day for controversial Canadian pipeline: The government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to decide on Tuesday the fate of the proposal for the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline project, a $5.5 billion expansion that “would nearly triple the amount of Canadian crude oil the pipeline transports each day from Edmonton, Alberta, to the port in Burnaby, British Columbia,” Amanda Coletta reports for The Post. “The project has proven a tough test for Trudeau. He insists that fighting climate change, defending Canada’s oil industry and mending the country’s strained relationship with its indigenous groups ‘go hand-in-hand,’” Coletta writes. “Not everyone agrees…Either decision, analysts say, risks alienating some voters.”
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources holds a hearing to “to examine deferred maintenance needs and potential solutions on federal lands administered by the Department of the Interior and the USDA Forest Service” on Tuesday.
- The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on “Environmental, social, and governance investing” on Tuesday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on “Legislative Solutions to Make Our Nation’s Pipelines Safer” on Wednesday.
- The House Science Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on fossil energy research on Wednesday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on geothermal energy development on Thursday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Consumer Protection and Commerce and Environment and Climate Change hold a hearing on the “Administration’s Rollback of Fuel Economy and Clean Car Standards” on Thursday.
— From The Post's Tom Toles: "Did life begin in the ocean? Will it end there?"