Haaland, a single mother who once relied on food stamps, became one of the first Native American women elected to Congress in 2018.
She would be the first Native American member of a presidential Cabinet if the Senate confirms her nomination. Her appointment to head the Interior Department holds great significance to Native Americans, because the department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“This historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say it’s not about me,” she said during her opening statement at her committee hearing. “Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us,” added Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo. “If an Indigenous woman from humble beginnings can be confirmed as secretary of the interior, our country holds promise for everyone.”
But during Haaland’s hearing, GOP lawmakers focused less on the historical nature of her nomination and instead homed in on characterizing the supporter of the Green New Deal as holding out-of-touch stances on issues such as climate change, fossil fuels and other environmental topics.
Haaland has previously stated that she is “wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands” and is a supporter of the Green New Deal, a resolution popular with the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party that seeks to tie climate action to other liberal priorities, including universal health care and guaranteed employment.
This has been an issue for those on the right. Republicans argue that fracking creates jobs and that limiting it in any way — the Interior Department only manages federal lands and cannot restrict drilling on private property — would put Americans out of work. And they also claim that the Green New Deal is too costly for taxpayers and have gone so far as to argue that the proposal would ban hamburgers.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R.-Miss.) said the lawmaker’s politics are “frankly alarming.”
Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R.-La.) called the lawmaker “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job” — something he ultimately apologized for.
Sen. John Barrasso (R.-Wyo.) shared that he was “troubled by many of [Haaland’s] views.”
There was a moment earlier this past week when it looked like Haaland’s nomination might be in jeopardy, until Sen. Joe Manchin III (D.-W.Va.) expressed his support for her after she shared the Biden administration plan to continue using fossil fuels.
Getting so close to actually shattering a glass ceiling but not being able to do so would have been a painful experience for many Native Americans, a community that has often felt ignored — especially as many people across the country are broadly examining the role systemic racism has played in policymaking.
“They don’t think she’s qualified … based upon her views,” Montana state Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy (D-Box Elder Reservation and Fort Belknap) told The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears. “It’s unfortunate because they haven’t given her the chance to do anything. Look at four years ago. People were nominated who didn’t have the qualifications Deb has now and [Republicans] didn’t question any of those unqualified candidates.”
Not only do supporters of Haaland argue that she has the qualifications to lead the department, but she also has the politics that many other Americans hold on environmental issues:
- Two-thirds of American adults said the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey.
- Americans are more likely to oppose (44 percent) than support (35 percent) fracking — a drilling technique that allows energy companies to extract oil or gas from the ground, according to a 2020 YouGov poll.
- Most Americans (60 percent) supported the general idea of dramatically reducing the United States’ fossil fuel use over the next two decades in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.
- A 2019 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that most Americas support the goals of the Green New Deal, such as guaranteeing jobs with good wages for all U.S. workers and providing all people in the country with health care through a government program — although there was little support for achieving the proposal’s goals by increasing federal government spending by the trillions.
In attempting to paint Haaland as someone outside of the mainstream, Republicans are reiterating what has long been clear: It is actually their stances on environmental issues that are relatively unpopular.
The Biden administration’s vision for the United States is arguably the most liberal of a president in history on environmental issues. Therefore, on many of the policy issues that Haaland would oversee, GOP lawmakers would probably disagree.
In making it difficult for Haaland to get the support needed to lead the Interior Department, Republicans are doubling down on the fact that their concerns about the environment, while in alignment with their base, are increasingly out of step with the larger population.