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Biden’s Leadership Vacancies at Interior Recall Trump’s Track Record

The department plays a pivotal role in fulfilling many of the administration’s goals. It deserves more than temporary minders.

Nearing the end of its first year, the Biden administration is starting down the same path as the Trump administration by letting unconfirmed lower officials manage key bureaus in the Interior Department. As under Trump, actions by these quasi-acting agency heads are now potentially vulnerable to legal challenge. The Biden administration should not use the Trump vacancy playbook.

Leaving positions that require Senate confirmation vacant creates complications arising from provisions of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. This law provides a new president with a 300-day “grace period” after inauguration to have his or her agency directors confirmed by the Senate in accordance with the Constitution’s “advice and consent” clause. 

Yet more than 320 days after Biden’s inauguration, six of the 14 top positions at Interior that require Senate confirmation are still filled by lower-level officials on a temporary basis. Of top concern are:

  • The U.S. Geological Survey, now headed by Associate Director David Applegate. Biden has yet to name a nominee for director of USGS, a premiere science research institution. The agency’s Biological Resources Division is, among other critical functions, studying SARS-CoV-2 in wild animals. Lab biosafety, lab leaks, and animal welfare are ongoing concerns that a confirmed director should more forcefully address.
  • The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, run by Deputy Director and Chief Financial Officer Glenda Owens. The agency still lacks a nominee for director. OSMRE is charged with ensuring the cleanup of millions of acres of abandoned mine lands and the return of mined lands to productive use. The director is responsible for significant engagement and negotiations with the powerful mining industry and coal-producing states. 
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, managed by Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams, now the nominee to lead the agency. The nation’s top wildlife conservation agency has had five different quasi-acting directors in the last five years, with a confirmed director for just one short stint of a little over a year under Trump. It’s not clear whether Williams, as a lawyer, meets the statutory requirement that the director, “by reason of scientific education and experience [is] knowledgeable in the principles of fisheries and wildlife management.”  

Other vacancies at Interior include the secretary for insular and international affairs (no nominee); assistant secretary for policy, management and budget (nomination of Winnie Stachelberg is pending in the Senate); and assistant secretary for lands and minerals management (nomination of Laura Daniel-Davis is pending).

As we saw in the last administration, the lack of confirmed, permanent leaders undermines the legitimacy of the department’s actions in the eyes of stakeholders, other federal agencies, and state agency counterparts. It is demoralizing to public servants working to fulfill critical missions. What’s more, our national lands, wildlife, and other valuable resources suffer in the absence of qualified leaders. 

The Interior Department plays a pivotal role in fulfilling many of the Biden administration’s goals. It requires and deserves more than temporary minders.  

Peter T. Jenkins is Senior Counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.