Sally Jewell's Hearing Made SCOTUS Confirmations Look Like 'Gladiator'

On Thursday morning, while Washington's chattering class was still agog over Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster, something far more relevant to the lives of ordinary Americans occurred and was largely ignored: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a confirmation hearing for Sally Jewell, the engineer, business executive, and conservationist whom President Obama nominated earlier this year to replace the desultory Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior. Here's the video, courtesy of C-SPAN:

Drones finally are a sexy topic. Good. The Interior Department? Still not so much. This is odd because if there is one federal beat worth covering aggressively, if there were one single address at the intersection of federal power and naked greed, it would be squarely in front of the Interior Department. The federal government, after all, owns approximately 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. And the Department of the Interior, after all, maintains stewardship over those hundreds of millions of federal acres.

The Interior Department also serves, according to its mission statement, as "one of the principal stewards" of America's "Ocean, Coastal and Great Lakes resources," which means the good folks over at Interior possess some degree of dominion over both the land and the sea, the fish and the fowl, and every creature in between. This broad power over big things far away from the East Coast, and the concomitant lack of media attention, helps explain why the Interior Department has been the subject of so many political scandals over the centuries.

Today Sally Jewell, the former Mobil Oil employee who says that "leaning into oil and gas development is an important part of the mission" of the Interior Department, is poised to be in charge of this federal agency. This means she will control an agency with approximately 70,000 employees and a budget of tens of billions of dollars. Never mind the seas and oceans, Jewell will largely shape the fate of vast swaths of public ground under which oil and gas companies want to drill and upon which millions of animals graze. This from a woman who proudly told the committee at the start of the hearing: "It's been a while since I fracked a well."

All of which might lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the distinguished members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, both the Democrats and the Republicans alike, would be keen to ask Jewell one trenchant question after another about her commitment to national conservationism, her perceived fealty to the oil and gas industries, her position on the state of Indian affairs, and her views on the current plight of the federally protected wild-horse herds -- to list just a few of the items that will cross her desk when she gets the job.

What happened instead on Thursday -- what you missed while you were Standing With Rand -- was a love-fest that makes the love-fests that are modern Supreme Court confirmation hearings seem like gladiator battles in the Coliseum. "The questions were generally polite," offered John Broder in The New York Times, in perhaps the biggest and most under-reported understatement of the week. But at least the Times covered the hearing. The Washington Post evidently did not, content to rely instead upon this report by the Associated Press.

The questions posed to Jewell weren't just polite -- you can ask a tough question politely, after all -- they were sycophantic even by Congressional standards. "A gem from the Northwest," proclaimed a beaming Patty Murray, the Democrat from Jewell's home state of Washington. "Oftentimes I've run into Sally at 10,000 feet, or followed her blog as she climbed Mount Vincent, the highest mountain in Antarctica," said Maria Cantwell, another Democrat from Washington. Yes, but is Jewell going to stand up to Mobil on behalf of the American people?

And the questions weren't just sycophantic, but shamelessly pedestrian. Lisa Murkowski of Alaksa, the ranking Republican on the committee, spent part of her opening statement kvetching to Jewell about a 10-mile-long dirt road in Alaska that had been blocked by federal officials. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, naturally wanted to extol the virtues of coal. And Lamar Alexander, the Republican from Tennessee, pitched to Jewell for an uncomfortable long period the virtues of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

More ominously, there were only a few moments in the 2-hour, 45-minute hearing where it was evident that committee members were more concerned about protecting public resources than about discovering ways to enable industry to exploit those resources. This is not a new development in this corner of the world. For centuries, Interior Department administrators have been beholden to the industries -- ranching and livestock, oil and gas -- they are supposed to regulate. Watch the hearing and judge for yourself whether that's different in 2013. I think not.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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