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A Better Way?

A Department of Natural Resources?

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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was in Boise (Read article) during the Easter week congressional recess.  During his visit he spent part of a day touring the National Interagency Fire Center (view website) (NIFC) at the Boise Airport. the air arm of joint Bureau of Land Management/Forest Service efforts to combat wildfires.

NIFC is an example of unusually good cooperation between the federal government’s two largest land management agencies.  Secretary Salazar later met with some 300 employees of the Fire Center and joining him at the front of the room was Bob Abbey, current head of the BLM, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, and former four-term Idaho governor and Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus.

Seeing this example of interagency cooperation must have sparked some interest on the part of Secretary Salazar because reportedly at subsequent dinner the former Colorado senator asked several leading questions of his dinner guests, Simpson and the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League (view website) Rick Johnson.

Simpson, now the chairman of the influential House Appropriations subcommittee (view website) that oversees the budget of both the Interior Department (view website) and the Environmental Protection Agency (View website), provided some good advice to Secretary Salazar.

As the Interior secretary tried to digest the logic of where some federal agencies find themselves on the government’s organizational chart, he learned from Simpson, who is skilled in many legislative matters not to mention steeped in history, that pure personal anger on the part of President Richard Nixon resulted in the EPA becoming a separate agency rather than a division within the Interior Department.  At the time EPA was created, Nixon was ticked off at then-Interior Secretary Wally Hickel’s less than forthright defense of Nixon’s Vietnam policies.

Simpson’s advice to Salazar:  do your homework and then have the president show some leadership by utilizing the presidential authority he already has to move agencies and divisions around at the cabinet level.  The former Speaker of the Idaho House knows that is the only practical way executive reorganization can be done. He also knows that any administration worth its salt can block legislative efforts to undo such executive action within the 60 days allowed for Congress to reverse this kind of Presidential leadership.

As President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of the Interior, Andrus can vouch for this exercise of presidential leadership approach to managing the federal bureaucracy.

In 1979, as President Carter was moving ahead with plans to create a federal Department of Natural Resources that would include the Forest Service, BLM, NOAA and a host of other agencies that should logically be housed under the same roof, Andrus pleaded with the president to utilize an executive order rather than to seek – and likely not get – Congressional authorization.

Andrus’ worst fears were soon realized. The special interest mobilized to defeat the perceived threat to their “K” Street lobbying contracts and maintain their cushy camaraderie with the congressional leadership and the chairmen of important committees.

Andrus, having served in a state legislature for eight years, instinctively knew that coalitions would quickly form to nit-pick to death the Carter proposal.  And he knew from his barnstorming tour of editorial boards around the nation that most editorial page editors were highly skeptical that the Carter approach would work, as were many of the lobbyists hustling up to the Hill to wine and dine members or key staff.

The day came all too soon when Andrus knew the Department of Natural Resources “dog would no longer hunt.”  He called up the president’s executive assistant, Jack Watson, to set up a meeting with the president to discuss cutting their losses and withdrawing the proposal.

When Andrus got there, much to his surprise, it was not a private meeting.  Instead, seven members of the “Georgia Mafia” were seated around the President.

Without notes or any supporting analytical white paper Andrus launched into a spirited recitation about why the President should not jeopardize other aspects of his legislative agenda in the hopes of winning a hopeless campaign to bring some rhyme and reason to the Interior Department’s organizational structure.

Andrus later told his staff that when he finished there was the longest period of silence he could possibly imagine before the late Jody Powell, Carter’s astutue press secretary, spoke up to support what the secretary had said.  The other Georgia Mafia present, folks like domestic policy advisor Stu Eizenstat, chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, and Watson then chimed in also.

The lesson to be gained is indeed that which Rep. Simpson implicitly understands – any administration must exercise real leadership if it wants to move agencies and bureaus around. A base of support is essential, but so is the use of an executive order, which, with the right support can stave off any Congressional attempt to maintain the status quo.

NIFC is a model for agency cooperation. Re-writing the federal organizational chart influenced by a heavy dose of common sense would provide even more opportunity to create a better functioning federal government. Leadership is the key ingredient.

(A slightly different version of this piece appeared recently in the St. Maries, Idaho Gazette-Record.)