Senate Democrats grill Interior pick on past lobbying work
WASHINGTON (AP) — The former oil and gas lobbyist nominated to head the Interior Department declined on Thursday to commit to recusing himself from future regulatory decisions involving past clients, telling senators “you want to have your A quarterback on the team.”
David Bernhardt appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which was considering his nomination as Interior secretary. Bernhardt, a Washington veteran who has worked previously at Interior and more recently as a lobbyist, has been serving as the department’s acting secretary since Ryan Zinke resigned in December amid ethics allegations.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said Bernhardt’s past lobbying work for clients in energy, agriculture and other businesses made it impossible for the nominee to impartially decide a host of regulatory matters dealing with the public resources under Interior’s control.
“I think you are so conflicted,” Wyden said. “You’re either going to have to disqualify yourself from so many matters I don’t know how you’re going to spend your day” or violate ethical standards by not recusing himself from decisions on clients.
Asked by Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, if he would take himself out of regulatory dealings involving past clients when a one-year mandatory recusal period ends, Bernhardt pushed back.
“I have a really particular skillset” for the job, Bernhardt said. “I’m basically handcuffed if I am recusing myself. And I don’t think that really is the best strategy.”
“I’m actually pretty good at going up against these guys,” he said, referring to industry interests. “And I would say you want to have your A quarterback on the team.”
Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, defended Bernhardt, saying his past work for industries and previous stints as a senior staffer at Interior gave him valuable experience.
And Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski said government ethics officials had approved Bernhardt’s plans for handling any conflicts of interest.
“He has proven his ability to head the department,” said Murkowski, an Alaska Republican.
Wyden also cited Interior documents recently made public under the federal Freedom of Information Act that he said showed Bernhardt’s agency suppressed internal findings about the harm that recent Interior decisions on pesticides would have on endangered species.
“You’ve meddled with the science, you’ve inserted yourself in the scientific process,” Wyden said.
Bernhardt responded that he made those decisions in accordance with advice from the department’s lawyers.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, asked the nominee about President Donald Trump’s drive to open federal waters to potential oil and gas development and about coastal states’ broad objections to that.
He said that if he votes for Bernhardt and Interior then moves to open up the offshore waters, “I don’t believe I can go home again.”
King asked Bernhardt to commit to making the wishes of coastal states “a major consideration” in any decision.
“Absolutely,” Bernhardt said.
Unlike Zinke, who won headlines by riding a horse to Interior on his first day on the job and appeared to welcome the spotlight thereafter, Bernhardt is seen as a low-key but skilled insider, capable of carrying out Trump’s business-friendly regulatory mandate in ways that could stand up to court challenges later by environmental groups.
Scores of conservation groups and other nonprofit organizations have spoken out against his confirmation, citing his previous lobbying work.
Government ethics codes for the executive branch were “designed to stop precisely these types of conflicts of interest: lobbying the government on an issue one day, then joining the government the next and continuing the effort desired by the previous client,” Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for governance advocacy group Public Citizen, said in a statement.