It didn’t require supernatural powers of clairvoyance to guess the name of President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of the Interior as successor to the cartoonishly unethical Ryan Zinke.
Trump’s choice, David Bernhardt, has been working as Zinke’s deputy virtually since the start of the Trump administration. He had served a prior stint at the agency under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009.
But the key to the appointment plainly is his history as an industry lobbyist.
That’s not just a shot in the dark. Bernhardt’s career record as a lobbyist tracks closely with the career paths of numerous other Trump appointees to Cabinet posts and other important positions. A shocking number were lobbyists or top corporate executives in industries that had been under the jurisdiction of their current agencies.
Let’s call the roll. Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services: Lobbyist for the drug giant Eli Lilly & Co. from 2007 to 2017, when he skated over to HHS. During his tenure as a top executive in Lilly’s lobbying shop, the company’s lobbying expenses totaled nearly $89 million, much of it spent during the period when the Affordable Care Act — on which Azar now sets policy — was being debated and drafted in Congress.
Patrick Shanahan, acting secretary of Defense: A veteran of Boeing corporate management, a major defense contractor, for more than 30 years. Among Shanahan’s responsibilities during his career at Boeing were stints as general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems and of Boeing Rotocraft Systems, which made the Apache, Chinook and Osprey military aircraft.
Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (and nominee as administrator): Former lobbyist for energy companies, including Murray Energy, a coal company whose CEO, Bob Murray, drafted a set of proposed executive orders for Trump to use in rolling back environmental regulations.
Some of these appointments came as a result of the revolving door between the officeholders’ appointments and the dispatch of their predecessors to industry sinecures. Former Interior Secretary Zinke has taken a job with an investment firm looking for opportunities in energy development, among other fields. Former HHS Secretary Tom Price took a job with a healthcare firm in his home state of Georgia. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been trying to set up a consulting firm for the coal industry.
The charitable view of stocking the upper reaches of the government with former industry executives is that they have the necessary expertise to ride herd on their former business colleagues. Unfortunately, there’s scant evidence that this is what happens in real life, and an abundance of evidence that the opposite is true.
Bernhardt’s activities at Interior are a case in point. As we reported in November, when Zinke was still secretary but his departure appeared to be imminent, Bernhardt’s former lobbying clients and related interests found themselves in remarkably good odor at Interior once he was confirmed as deputy.
The Western Values Project, a progressive-funded Montana organization, alleged in a lawsuit filed last year that many of Bernhardt’s former clients “began receiving sudden and dramatic windfalls only months since his swearing in.”
One is Cadiz Inc., the developer of a putative water storage project in the Mojave Desert that paid the Brownstein firm $2.75 million in lobbying fees and 200,000 shares of stock while Bernhardt was at the firm; Scott Slater, a Brownstein attorney, currently serves as the Cadiz CEO. Within months of Bernhardt’s confirmation, Interior withdrew legal rulings adverse to Cadiz, giving the water project a new lease on life despite years of findings that it’s essentially useless and environmentally damaging. Cadiz is on Bernhardt’s recusal list.
The Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, another outfit on Bernhardt’s list, benefited when Interior took steps to revise government agreements protecting the sage grouse— and thanked Bernhardt personally for the action. Last August, Bernhardt produced an op-ed for the Washington Post that amounted to a broadside against the Endangered Species Act, a law over which he had sued Interior on behalf of California’s giant Westlands Water District, which would love to see a rollback of the law.
Upon being nominated as secretary, Bernhardt paid the obligatory obeisance to Trump, tweeting: “It’s a humbling privilege to be nominated to lead a Department whose mission I love, to accomplish the balanced, common sense vision of our President.”
At EPA, Wheeler hasn’t been shy about pushing policies dear to the heart of coal companies and the fossil fuel industry, especially skepticism about climate change. At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, Wheeler dismissed official reports documenting the effects of climate change, although he acknowledged that he hadn’t fully read the report issued by his own agency. He has continued to push ahead with numerous deregulatory initiatives started by Pruitt.
Azar at HHS has proposed initiatives aimed at halting the run-up in pharmaceutical prices, but whether he has achieved material change is debatable. More important, he has presided over the systematic sabotage of the Affordable Care Act advocated by Trump, including the promotion of short-term junk health insurance plans and the tolerance of new work requirements for low-income Americans on Medicaid.
One such plan proposed by Kentucky and approved by Azar won the disdain of a federal judge, who ruled that Azar had paid no attention to the state’s own projection that its policy would lead to a loss of coverage for nearly 100,000 enrollees.