Republican members of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee expressed support for the Interior Department’s tribal programs Tuesday, but indicated that a proposed budget increase is unlikely to get their approval.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland appeared before the panel to make the case for the administration’s March 9 request for $18.8 billion in fiscal 2024 discretionary funding, a 9.3 percent increase from the fiscal 2023 enacted levels. Haaland highlighted the $4.7 billion that would go to the Interior Department’s tribal programs, an increase of $690 million.
Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said that tribal needs, including land management, law enforcement and health care, are nonpartisan priorities for the committee. However, Republicans have suggested cuts to nondefense spending and Simpson suggested that the Interior Department would not be immune.
“We need to have a serious discussion about how to do more with less,” said Simpson. “We’ll be looking for ways to increase efficiencies, reduce duplication and ensure that federal dollars are spent wisely with a demonstrated benefit.”
Subcommittee ranking member Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, asked Haaland to elaborate on a document she prepared at the request of full committee ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., which detailed the effects that spending at fiscal 2022 levels would have on department programs.
Haaland said it would cause a hiring freeze, affect the ability to hire seasonal employees and reduce the number of wildland firefighters.
Simpson said he fought for a higher appropriations allocation during his previous tenure as subcommittee chairman, but that now is a “tough time for budgets all across the spectrum.” He added that he did not know what the budget allocation would be.
Haaland said the budget request would allow the department to increase staff to 68,000 across all agencies, an increase of 4,000 at a time when she said the department is understaffed and working to build up its capacity.
Simpson said the bipartisan infrastructure law and last year’s climate, tax and health care law provided the agency with funds to hire additional employees and expressed concern that the department may ask Congress for additional funding in the future to avoid layoffs of the new hires.
“I’m very concerned, however, with the amount of new staff that are planning to be hired with this funding, because as you know this funding will run out,” said Simpson. “It was an influx of cash outside of the annual appropriations process.”
Haaland said they are “moving out responsibly” with hiring and focusing on employees with time limits on their contracts. She added that they may be able to absorb some of these employees in the future.
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said Congress was already providing funds for positions the department was ultimately unable to fill because of the high cost of living in some areas. He noted that officials in regional Bureau of Land Management offices in his district told him they couldn’t fill some positions, even after adjusting pay for the locality.
Amodei urged the department to consider implementing housing programs similar to those it has for wildland firefighters or Park Service employees. Haaland said she would be willing to discuss potential solutions with Amodei.
Reps. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., and Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., questioned Haaland on the department’s stance on critical minerals, saying the department under her leadership has taken actions that would slow mining projects and require the U.S. to depend on adversaries such as China and Russia for the minerals.
Zinke, who was Interior secretary under President Donald Trump from March 2017 to January 2019, criticized the department’s January decision to issue a 20-year mining moratorium for over 225,000 acres of federal land in northeastern Minnesota that had been eyed for a potential copper and nickel mine. The proposed mine is upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Zinke said a December 2017 report from the U.S. Geological Survey found that the critical mineral supply chain is vulnerable to disruption and questioned why Haaland didn’t speed up critical mineral mining elsewhere before issuing the moratorium for the Minnesota land.
However Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., thanked Haaland for the decision and noted that mining projects elsewhere, including in Montana, have also been blocked over water quality concerns.
Zinke’s back-and-forth with Haaland was at times tense, but he said he understood the job.
“I may wear a hat but it’s not cowboys and Indians, I hope you know that,” Zinke told Haaland in a brief exchange after the hearing, with a cowboy hat in hand.
Haaland is the first Native American to be a Cabinet member.