By lazyllama /

House Democrats Move to Block Agency Relocations, Buyouts

Lawmakers put language in appropriations bills to prevent the Trump administration from advancing key initiatives.

House Democrats are looking to block the Trump administration’s effort to dramatically reshape land management and environmental agencies, calling the efforts misguided and poorly planned.

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a spending bill that would stymie efforts by the Interior Department to reorganize and attempts by the Environmental Protection Agency to slash employees. Lawmakers have provided some funding for Interior’s efforts, but have grown frustrated by what they see as a lack of transparency and insight into planning. Fiscal 2020 would mark the third consecutive year Congress has blocked EPA from moving forward with separation incentives such as buyouts and early retirement offers.

In addition to reshuffling its field offices into 12 unified regions, Interior has proposed moving headquarters for some of its agencies—such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey—out of Washington, D.C., and into a new location in the western part of the country. Administration officials have promoted this plan as reducing real estate costs and allowing employees to live in cheaper areas with easier flights to field offices. Many lawmakers and stakeholders have questioned the administration’s true motives, criticized the plan for its lack of details and noted the disruption it would cause for the department's workforce.

Interior requested $10.5 million for reorganization efforts in its fiscal 2020 budget request after receiving $14 million this year. In a report accompanying the Fiscal 2020 Interior and Environment Appropriations Act, Democrats spelled out their concerns.

“The committee is not convinced of the efficacy of moving additional personnel out of the headquarters area when approximately 93% of bureau employees are already working in the field and directs that no additional relocations of headquarters staff take place,” they said of BLM.

The committee said the Geological Survey has not demonstrated a “strong foundational analysis” or any “compelling argument” for moving its headquarters west.

“A relocation of the magnitude proposed in the budget request would dramatically change the organization, have significant financial costs, and impact the Survey’s effectiveness and strategic national-level partnerships with federal agencies, states, scientific organizations, and stakeholders,” the panel wrote. “The Survey should not commit federal funds or personnel time to this relocation but instead focus its efforts on ensuring Survey operations are open and transparent, the quality and objectivity of Survey science is maintained, and investments are leveraged.”

The committee instructed the Geological Survey not to cut staffing. It also would provide the National Park Service with funding for 500 new hires “so that it can conserve and manage our natural and cultural resources to ensure an enriching national park experience for the public.”

Last year, Congress directed Interior to “develop a concrete plan” for reshaping functions, including gathering input from stakeholders and its own workforce. Lawmakers requested a report from the department 30 days before it spent any of the funds provided for reorganization efforts. The committee noted, however, that Interior “has not provided any of this information.”

The committee also included language that would prevent EPA from engaging in “workforce reshaping,” a term of art that essentially means cutting staff. The agency had requested $31 million as part of its effort to slash 15% of its workforce, calling it “critical to EPA’s ability to accomplish its mission.” Instead, the Democrats would require EPA to develop staffing targets at each of its regional offices and headquarters, followed by a specific plan to meet those targets while keeping Congress apprised of its progress.