WASHINGTON – This is how the Trump administration goes about the quiet business of incapacitating the U.S. government.
President Trump spent his summer making war on Denmark, sending an imaginary hurricane to Alabama and ousting his national security adviser. But while everybody was watching those fireworks, Trump’s underlings were toiling in the shadows to hand over public lands to oil and gas companies.
The scheme was ostensibly to put the Bureau of Land Management closer to the lands it manages by moving personnel out of Washington. That makes sense until you consider:
1. Ninety-seven percent of the BLM’s employees already are outside of Washington, and the few hundred in the capital do things such as coordinate with Congress and other agencies; now half the congressional affairs staff, I’m told, will work out of Reno, Nevada.
2. BLM organized this with cursory analysis and no significant consultation with Congress or American Indians.
3. BLM decided to locate its new headquarters in Grand Junction, hours from a major airport but just down the road from the hometown of Interior Secretary (and former oil and gas lobbyist) David Bernhardt, who presides over BLM.
4. The relocation was overseen by Interior’s Joseph Balash, up until days before he took a job with an oil company.
5. When Sen. Tom Udall said it appeared the proposal was a “deliberate effort to dismantle” BLM, Balash threatened Udall, saying he would “reconsider the relocation of additional departmental resources to your state.”
6. Many workers being shipped out of Washington are reportedly being offered lower-level, lower-pay jobs – confirming suspicions that the real purpose is to drive experts out of government and thereby shrink the agency.
Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said as much last month. “It’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I’ve tried,” he told a GOP gala. “By simply saying to people, ‘You know what, we’re going to ... move you out in the real part of the country,’ and they quit – what a wonderful way to sort of streamline government.”
Since Balash left, the unenviable task of explaining the relocation to Congress fell to his replacement, William Perry Pendley, who joined Interior after three decades of suing the federal government to weaken protections for federal lands. Pendley hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate and perhaps couldn’t be: His Twitter musings are a collection of attacks on Democrats.
Pendley informed the House Natural Resources Committee the department is offering “knowledgeable and compassionate assistance” to those relocating.
Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, a Native American, asked about his past mockery of Native religions.
“I was not speaking as a member of the BLM,” Pendley explained.
Rep. TJ Cox, of California, asked for specific details of the relocation.
“I’ll have to defer to congressional and legislative affairs,” Pendley said.
Right. In Reno.
The Trump administration has attempted similar relocations at the Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Personnel Management and elsewhere. But 85% of the federal workforce already is outside the Washington area. And at BLM, which has only a few hundred of its 10,000 employees in Washington, the argument for decentralization is particularly weak. Even BLM’s deputy director of operations, Mike Nedd, told employees last week that “I probably would have made a different decision,” E&E News reported.
But Pendley, at that same meeting, said the administration would push ahead with the plan, even if it doesn’t have sufficient funds – because “we are confident that Congress will provide additional funding.”
And if not? Well, Trump can declare another emergency and take more money from the Pentagon. When your goal is kneecapping the federal government, anything goes.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.