POLITICO Pro Q&A: House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva

Rep. Raúl Grijalva is promising aggressive oversight of the Interior Department if Democrats win the House this fall, something he says has been ignored by the Republicans now in charge of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Grijalva, who has represented a Tucson, Ariz.-based district since 2003 and has risen to become the top Democrat on the resources panel, said the “arrogant” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has turned his department into a “personality cult” for himself while declining to provide sufficient information on his plans to reorganize the agency. While there’s a “level of civility” between him and Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Grijalva said in a recent interview in his office on Capitol Hill that“some really philosophical differences" make it unlikely the two men will be able to work together on broad legislation.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

You and other Democrats have complained you are not getting responses to your letters requesting information from Zinke or other Trump administration officials. What do you think of how the administration is approaching this?

There really is an arrogance. Zinke in his own personality is arrogant, but let’s just talk about our jurisdiction. We’ve sent tons of letters and no response on some of the critical ones that we sent. The agenda for the oversight subcommittee that they insisted be part of our committee structure under Obama is lethargic — it’s impotent, it doesn’t do anything. That should have been the arm that’s kind of looking at things if not the whole committee. So we don’t do that. We very seldom get people from the agency to show up and give testimony. That’s never been the norm, even during the [George W.] Bush administration. Somebody from the administration always showed up to state their position.

Now almost a year-and-a-half into his tenure at Interior, has Zinke led the agency as you expected?

I didn’t have a negative expectation. I really didn’t. Having been a former member of the committee, there was a glimmer of expectation that he would understand what our function is, understand the dynamics of what the Democrats want and what they push. Because he was on that committee, maybe have better communications than had been anticipated. All that disappeared pretty early on.

While I didn’t have any negative expectation, there was some expectation that we might be able to work with this guy. That includes outside organizations that felt they could work with him. He’s somebody from the West. Understood those issues as well. But it very quickly turned into more of a personality cult for him.

This whole reorganization is going to hurt the Interior Department for hopefully not long, but at least a decade. What you’re doing is not really clear. Decentralizing, whatever the heck that means, when actually it already is decentralized.

Did you know him back in Congress at all?

He wasn’t a big participant in the committee. He’d show up and take votes. He opposed the majority on a couple of things [such as the] Land and Water Conservation Fund, which we thought was going to be an opening for us. That hasn’t proven to be true. He was there, but I wouldn’t say at the full committee meeting he was one of the leaders on their side in terms of the things that were being done.

But do you think he’d be ready for the oversight that would come if Democrats take back the majority? And what would you look to first if that opportunity presented itself?

Budget. Reorganization. Who’s making decisions? I would look at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which doesn’t have a director. [National] Park Service doesn’t have a director. I think those areas would be one of the first we’d have to go into.

The budget in and of itself is the most important document, but I think beyond that you have real oversight as to what your reorganization plan is. Cause other than an outline, there is nothing there. We’re moving stuff to Denver. Moving stuff over here. And we’re decentralizing. Nobody really has a clear picture of what the hell this plan is going to be and how, supposedly, it’s going to be closer [to the agency’s mission].

I think also the connections. There’s a group of key political appointees where that has to be done and what their relationship is to oil and gas, and to other industries that are coveting and lusting after the public lands at this point ...

The more we can bring to light about what’s going on at Interior. It’s under the radar right now given all these other issues. [EPA Administrator Scott] Pruitt kind of dominates that whole thing on the environmental side, but what Zinke and the political appointees are doing there just has the same long-term ramifications in the negative for Interior and the jurisdiction that we have. There’s a lot at stake.

How’s your relationship with Bishop been during the Trump administration?

It’s cordial and friendly at times 'cause I think that’s just my personality. I don’t hate the guy, but he’s got an agenda, he’s pushing it. That’s the legacy he wants to leave. And that agenda is something we oppose, so that’s where the rub is. And it’s always there. There’s a level of civility between the two of us.

Do you see the ability to work on broader legislation with him?

I think there are some ideological differences that run really deep. He has lines that he has drawn and obviously so have we. We’re not going to give up Endangered Species Act in order to cut a deal. We’re not going to get rid of NEPA or make categorical exclusion the only thing we can do in order to cut a deal.

There’s opportunities on some land bills. There’s opportunity on individual legislation that members bring. Yeah, we should be able to work on those. But a big, broad reform package as he calls it? That’s a little more difficult because then we’re running into about where things need to be between Democrats and Republicans — and it’s reflected in both of us.

What do you make of the committee’s oversight efforts in response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico? Has enough been done?

No, it hasn’t done enough. Oversight as to what happened when you have the disparity in deaths between the federal report and the Harvard report? No, we’re approaching that oversight as a business model. How is the grid coming up? How is PREPA really doing its job? How are we balancing the budget? It’s a financial oversight and they’re always going to have room for criticism because it’s not going the way it was predicted in PROMESA.

The humanity side of it, which is also our jurisdiction, and the kinds of protection in the long-term for the health and safety of the people on the island, we haven’t talked about that. We haven’t talked about how you get the health system going again. What are you going to do with the public schools? Are you going to privatize them all like you did in New Orleans? Those questions that should be part of the oversight. So, no. On the business model, yeah. On the humanitarian side, which is where all the drama and trauma is, we haven’t done that.

What do you think would make Zinke's position less secure?

I think the accountability changes everything. People that are not used to being accountable, when you have secretaries that are feeling imperial about their job — they don’t have to play by the same rules — I think accountability and oversight, it’s not a question of do you force them out, do you seek some sort of punitive impeachment or something. Just that oversight function done correctly and professionally — and accountability attached to it — that’ll be enough for them to think twice, not only about behavior but about the position.

That kind of required pressure is something that they’re not used to. I don’t think they’ll necessarily react well to it.

What did you make of the trip Zinke took to Florida where he announced he was withdrawing Florida from the offshore drilling plan?

That just dismissed that whole idea of offshore entirely — whether it’s the West Coast, off the Atlantic. Because then it became what many of us felt it was: Purely subjective. Here’s a guy — [Florida Gov. Rick] Scott — he’s running for Senate, but he can’t run for Senate if you’re going to be drilling off Miami somewhere. And so, OK, for a purely political consideration, you lifted it. That political consideration is applicable to every other designation that they made. Any legitimacy that anybody wanted to add to hat or even assess to that decision was lost completely. It was hypocritical and totally subjective.

By:  Anthony Adragna