U.S. House lawmakers fume after Interior sends them useless pages

Georgia's U.S. Rep. Jody HIce and other members of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee are irked over the piles of paper the Interior Department wasted in responses to attempts at oversight. Nels Highberg/Creative Commons

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike are irked by how the U.S. Department of the Interior has responded — or failed to respond — to their oversight requests. 

“The Trump administration has declared open war on Congress’ constitutional authority to conduct oversight,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. 

Of the committee’s more than 24 formal requests for documents or information, Grijalva said, they’ve received only three complete or nearly complete responses. For 14 of the requests — over half — the committee has received no substantive response, he added. 

In one case, Interior gave the committee a 12,000-page printout of a single Microsoft Excel table, Grijalva said, showing images of empty spreadsheet pages that were sent to the committee. In response to another request, Interior sent over 100 pages of unintelligible symbols, he said. 

Grijalva isn’t alone in his frustration. Other lawmakers also showed redacted pages they’ve received from Interior in response to oversight requests, including a fully blacked out page. 

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) was unimpressed by the response he got from Interior after requesting information about the Trump administration’s decision to renew two mining leases near the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. 

Of the nearly 11,000 pages of documents he received, Tonko said, “most of them were entirely irrelevant.” About one-third of the documents were duplicates, he said, and the other two-thirds included documents that were almost entirely redacted, publicly available, computer code or irrelevant papers about the long-term storage of nuclear waste. 

Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s top attorney who was confirmed by the Senate just this week, pledged to be more responsive and to better respond to the committee’s requests going forward. 

Grijalva said the unresponsiveness appears to have been targeted at him personally. 

The chairman said his committee had obtained emails showing that Interior employees had been instructed to withhold communications from him and that any documents he requested were to be reviewed first by political appointees. “No other member of the House was singled out” the same way, Grijalva added. 

Jorjani told him, “Any notion of a mandatory two-week delay for the chairman of our oversight committee is incorrect and I’d be shocked if it were still in place.” He pledged to look into the matter. 

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said he joined his Democratic colleagues in being “highly offended” that Interior would “send 12,000 pages of nothing and then try to appear as though your department is being cooperative.” 

Hice asked Jorjani: “Why would you do something like that?” He added,“12,000 pages is a lot of pages of nothing.” 

Jorjani said that according to his understanding, responsive documents had also been included, and the department didn’t want to appear to be excluding information that could be viewed as relevant to congressional requests. 

He said, “I commit to doing better and whether it’s the saving of trees or wasted time of the committee, I agree that is probably not the best practice and I commit to reducing it in the future.” 

Hice agreed. “It’s probably not” the best practice, he said. 

 

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