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.

Ron Wyden, the Democrat from Oregon who chairs the committee, set the tone in his opening remarks. It's about jobs. It's about using public lands to create jobs and to maintain jobs. "We've got to get our people back to work in the woods," he told the nominee, "we've got to make sure that we can increase the number of jobs in resource-dependent communities where there is federal land and federal water and we believe that can be done consistent with protecting our environmental values."

Then it was Jewell's turn. First, there was the brief paean to conservatism:

The crown jewels of our nation are our parks, forests, deserts, rivers and sea shores. They are  places which tell the story of our diverse history, our struggle, our triumph and our tragedy. And it is through the wisdom of many congresses and presidents that we've protected and celebrated these assets, recognizing their deep enduring value.

And then, immediately, was the pivot and the obligatory bow to industry and development:

Public lands are also huge economic engines. Through energy development, through grazing, logging, tourism and outdoor education, our lands and waters power our economy and create jobs. Balance is absolutely critical. Our public lands and our waters have to be managed wisely. If confirmed for this position, I will use the best science available to harness their economic potential, preserving their multiple uses for currents generations and future generations.

And then there was the corporate gobbledygook, the kind you might see and herein those slick oil-company commercials:

On thing that I learned in my journey through 19 years of banking is that I have a deep appreciation for the creativity, the entrepreneurship and the commitment of our nation's business people, not only to economic development but also to the support and development of their communities and the care of their environment ...

... On energy, I have a commitment to the president's "all of the above" energy strategy, increasing our nation's production of both traditional and renewal sources of energy on our public lands, implementing innovative technologies and new frontiers both on shore and offshore to encourage both safe and responsible development of our resources.

I also understand, as a businessperson, it's important to bring certainty and clarity to industry. Industry doesn't mind the rules, they just want to know what the rules are, and they want predictability as they make investments that power our future.  

And so on. There are two takeaways from Thursday's hearing. The first is that in Jewell, the forces of industry and commerce once again have someone they can work with at Interior. The second is that Congress is utterly uninterested in checking the scope of those commercial interests on behalf of the general public. That's why Thursday's confirmation hearing was so utterly devoid of any genuine insight into the future secretary's stomach to fight her old oil company friends, or her new corporate buddies, with public land on the line.*

"Science. Science will be her compass, not an ideological bent," Cantwell declared in her opening statement. We'll see. The "best available science," after all, is only as good as the people in power who get to determine which science is "best" and which is "available." Besides, being head of the Interior Department, like being part of the tectonic plate, is all about the relationship between time and pressure, between the push and the pull of disparate forces. Clearly Jewell will be pushed more by the forces of development than she will be pulled by the forces of conservation. How she bends, or whether she cracks, is today's open question.

*For example, although outgoing Secretary Ken Salazar created a looming catastrophe for the nation's wild horses, leaving tens of thousands of them penned and in jeopardy of being slaughtered, not a single senator asked Jewell about her views on horses (views which, as far as I can tell, have never been publicly aired). Jewell, meanwhile, for all her talk about conservation, never once mentioned these federally protected horses or the Bureau of Land Management's dubious role in managing them.