Politics & Government

A nemesis of California environmentalists gains new powers, but also new foes

Democrats and their allies are moving to push back against a former lobbyist and frequent foe of California environmentalists, who is on his way to becoming the next secretary of the Interior Department.

They don’t have the power to block Trump nominee David Bernhardt, but Democrats, particularly those from California, do have far more ability to oppose his agenda than they had for the last two years, when he served as the powerful deputy secretary of the department.

During that time, Bernhardt helped advance a slew of controversial proposals on oil and gas drilling on public lands and off the coasts, changes to the Endangered Species Act, and a move to free up more water for California agriculture that could further harm endangered fish.

Among those now in position to lead the charge against Bernhardt: a cadre of California Democrats in Washington.

Democrats’ return to the House majority in 2019 has elevated a number of California congressmen to influential posts overseeing the environmental policy.

Rep. Jared Huffman of San Rafael, a former attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, is now chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, overseeing the federal agencies that manage the nation’s watery supply. Freshman T.J. Cox of Fresno, meanwhile, chairs the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. And Rep. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach heads the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Another freshman Democrat, Rep. Harley Rouda of Newport Beach, was named chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Environment.

Huffman, Cox and Lowenthal have already teamed up with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva in demanding information from the Interior Department on Bernhardt’s activities when he was deputy secretary and, for the last three months, acting secretary. If the department does not comply, committee Democrats have the power to subpoena officials and documents.

One request from Cox and Grijalva, regarding Bernhardt’s schedule and meetings with interest groups, has already yielded a trove of documents that committee staff are now poring through, the committee confirmed.

“For the past six years that I’ve been in Congress, it’s been the same drill,” Huffman told McClatchy in an interview last month, lamenting the “very secretive backroom deals” that have been cut to benefit special interests over the environment.”

“I think we have very different tools to work with now,” Huffman continued. “We’re in a much better position to shine a light on that and to insist on more deliberative and transparent policy making.”

Mary Creasman, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters, said that spotlight is “huge.”

“We’ve got to win the public narrative around this,” Creasman said. But she also cautioned that, “It’s really tough to hold this administration accountable ... It’s got to be a drumbeat, it’s got to be relentless.”

Environmental activists have been beating the drum on Bernhardt since he joined the Trump administration in July 2017. While then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was the face of the agency, Bernhardt was viewed by many as the “man behind the curtain,” as Huffman put it, making key policy decisions.

Critics complain that Bernhardt has used his perch in government to fight for his former clients — oil and gas interests, as well California’s Westlands Water District, the powerful Fresno-based agriculture water supplier. Government watchdog groups have filed several ethics complaints concerning Bernhardt, including allegations he violated the administration’s ethics pledge by participating in a policy decision that directly benefits Westlands.

Bernhardt told the New York Times that he received verbal approval from Interior Department ethics officials to participate in that decision, and agency lawyers have defended his role since.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, Bernhardt insisted he has always behaved ethically. “I have actively sought and consulted with the department’s designated ethics officials for advice on particular matters involving clients and I have implemented an incredibly robust screening process to ensure that I don’t meet with former firms or former clients to participate in particular matters … that I’ve committed to recuse myself from,” he testified.

Democrats on the committee remained unconvinced. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden told Bernhardt Thursday, “I think you are so conflicted that if you get confirmed ... you’re going to have to disqualify yourself from so many matters, I don’t know how you’re going to spend your day.”

That didn’t dissuade Republicans. “My intention is to move quickly to confirm you as soon as we possibly can,” Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said at the hearing’s outset. Democrats, alone, do not have the votes to block Bernhardt’s nomination, which requires a simple majority in the Senate.

That leaves Democrats in the House majority and back in California on the front lines in the inevitable political battles over the administration’s efforts to rewrite the heavily contested rules for water allocation in the state, something Trump promised during his 2016 campaign.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.