Lawmakers say Interior should pause the relocations altogether.
As Congress appears poised to pass spending measures for fiscal 2020 without appropriating any money for the Interior Department’s reorganization and relocations, the Trump administration said it would ship out employees anyway and withhold incentive payments as a result of the lack of new funding.
A panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a spending bill for Interior and other agencies that would not provide new funding for the department’s planned relocation of the Bureau of Land Management from Washington, D.C., to Colorado, according to the subcommittee’s leaders. The bill follows a House-backed bill that contains a provision to block the relocation from moving forward.
Interior, which plans to relocate hundreds of Washington-based employees to outposts in western states, in addition to the 27 who will stand up the Grand Junction, Colorado, headquarters, responded to the bill by warning that the funding shortfall would only serve to hurt employees. A department spokesperson reiterated what officials have told Congress: namely that the department already has sufficient funding for the relocations and will proceed with or without additional support from Capitol Hill.
"The BLM relocation is moving full speed ahead,” the spokesperson said. “The department intends to give BLM employees their legally authorized compensation and incentives, but ultimately it is up to Congress to decide if they want to deny these benefits to our employees."
Interior told employees earlier this month it would provide impacted D.C. employees 25% of their base salaries as an incentive to move, as well as either 60 days of temporary housing and related living expenses or an agency-funded house-hunting trip to their new location before reporting there.
The department has said—and repeated on Tuesday—that Congress missed its deadline to object to the relocation and it will move forward using already appropriated funds. Democratic appropriators have accused the administration of circumventing congressional intent and its prerequisites to justify the move.
“Congress gave us $5.6 million [for reorganization],” current BLM chief William Perry Pendley told a House committee earlier this month. “The secretary decided to utilize that to move and we’re on the march.” He added he was appearing before lawmakers in part to convince them to meet BLM’s future funding needs for the relocation, an effort that so far has proven unsuccessful.
At Tuesday’s appropriations meeting, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., the subcommittee’s top Democrat and an outspoken opponent of the reorganization, said the new spending bill should send a message to Interior.
“I’m also pleased the bill provides no new funding requested by the administration for the Department of Interior reorganization, including no additional resources to implement the ill-advised relocation of the Bureau of Land Management,” Udall said. “Between this bill and the strong statement made by the House to oppose the reorganization, the administration would be well advised not to try to ram these changes through and actually work with Congress on a good faith basis.”
A report accompanying the House-passed appropriations bill setting funding levels for the Interior said lawmakers were “not convinced of the efficacy of moving additional personnel out of the headquarters area” when so many employees already work outside of the D.C. area and “directs that no additional relocations of headquarters staff take place.” The full Senate Appropriations Committee is set to take up the bill on Thursday.
In a sign of the administration’s commitment to moving forward with its relocation, BLM announced recently it signed a lease in Grand Junction. Pendley called it an “important step” that would make BLM “a better neighbor to western communities.” Currently, about 96% of BLM employees work outside of the D.C. area.
Pendley told Congress his goal is to “not lose a single employee” during the relocation process. In addition to the financial incentives, Interior has put in place certain “hiring controls” to ensure employees who wish to remain in Washington can apply for vacant positions with priority consideration. The department requested $27.6 million in its fiscal 2020 budget for reorganization efforts.