Interior Department Gets a Cleanup
WASHINGTON, D.C., November 29, 2017 | Committee Press Office (202-225-2761)
OP-ED: Interior Department Gets a Cleanup
Rep. Rob Bishop
Chairman, House Committee on Natural Resources
In the 1990s, after posting the largest revenue losses at the time of any U.S. company in history, multinational computer giant IBM implemented an epic corporate turnaround. Having posted billions of dollars in annual losses, it was widely considered bloated and antiquated. Business executive Louis Gerstner Jr., largely credited with IBM’s “rebirth,” reflected that “Reorganization to me is shuffling boxes, moving boxes around. Transformation means that you’re really fundamentally changing the way the organization thinks, the way it responds, the way it leads. It’s a lot more than just playing with boxes.” It’s clear that the Interior Department needs such a transformation.
While the Interior Department employs less than one-fifth the number of employees at IBM today, the department is facing an equally crucial juncture and an opportunity to shed its bloated, antiquated and bureaucratic ways. It’s apparent that my former colleague who now leads the department, Ryan Zinke, agrees.
The Interior Department is one of the most vital federal agencies, overseeing more than 400 million acres of federally owned land, 26 percent of which is in 11 western states. In case you’re wondering, 400 million acres is about one-fifth of all the land in the United States or approximately four times the size of California. The department and its agencies have diverse missions and responsibilities that include everything from running our nation’s cherished national parks to managing offshore energy resources on 1.7 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf.
Despite the importance of the department’s work, its ever-expanding missions have fueled a decline in its ability to provide efficient, effective and transparent service to the American public. In fact, the Government Accountability Office identified several “mission critical” functions within the department — the management of oil and gas resources and Interior programs that serve tribes — to be high-risk areas for “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement or the need [of] transformation.”
I agree with the Government Accountability Office. The department has fallen behind in carrying out some of its basic statutory responsibilities, including responsible management and development of our nation’s natural resources. Despite this being among the department’s most basic functions, costly and duplicative bureaucratic policies have slowed resources development, leading to an $8 billion decline in royalties during the past four years. This inefficiency ultimately shortchanges the American taxpayer.
We’ve seen federal coordination with states and local land managers deteriorate, often resulting in distrust and poor resource management. For example, resource management plans, created by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are designed to delineate how federal lands will be managed and how those objectives can square with state and local needs. Contrary to their very purpose, these plans have become restrictive and unproductive, and the agency’s mandate for sustained yield and multiple use management has been essentially ignored as a result.
The lack of accountability for serious misconduct by Interior officials further complicates these issues. Several high-profile cases of misconduct have come to light in recent years, ranging from sexual harassment within the ranks of the National Park Service to the brazen abuse of authority by BLM Special Agent Dan Love. A pattern has emerged demonstrating a reluctance by senior department officials to discipline and hold federal employees accountable for their wrongdoing. I’m encouraged to see the department beginning to open its eyes to reports of misconduct and impose real consequences on those found responsible.
As Congress and the department consider reforms to address problems within the agency, the first step should be to bring decision-making and leadership back to the communities where Interior’s policies and work impacts citizens the most — the western United States. The western states include large swaths of federally managed land, such as in my home state of Utah, where about 65 percent of all land is owned by the federal government. There is no doubt that we need increased state and local input and federal management that is responsive to the needs of communities. After years of systemic dysfunction and mismanagement at the department, true change is long overdue.
A shift away from the current Washington-centric management system toward a contemporary decentralized model that prioritizes accountability, transparency and service to the American people must occur. A primary responsibility of Congress is to conduct oversight of the executive branch. The Natural Resources Committee has a critical role overseeing the Interior Department’s reorganization efforts, and I look forward to reviewing the specifics of Mr. Zinke’s plans. Together, we have an opportunity to not just move organizational boxes, but to transform the way the department responds to the American people it serves.
Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, is chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Sign up to receive news, updates and insights directly to your inbox.