Bottomless bad faith at the BLM

William Perry Pendley’s confirmation debacle exposes a supine Senate

A visitor fishes at the BLM-administered Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado in September 2013. (Bob Wick/BLM)

William Perry Pendley looked as if he could join a long list of Trump agency heads whose previous activities positioned them as enemies of the very government functions the president assigned them to lead.

When Scott Pruitt was Oklahoma attorney general he sued the Environmental Protection Agency over and over. Naturally, President Trump deemed him the perfect candidate to lead the agency. When alleged ethics violations forced Pruitt out, his replacement, Andrew Wheeler, brought with him to the job deep anti-environmental experience as a former coal lobbyist. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt — a native of Rifle and former Denver-based energy industry lobbyist — came to his position with too many conflicts of interest to count. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is averse to public education. Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry wanted to dismantle the Energy Department before he oversaw it. 

The list is almost inexhaustible. These officials in these posts make the fox guarding the henhouse appear lambish.

Head of the BLM William Perry Pendley. (blm.gov)

Pendley is no different. Since July 2019, he has filled in as head of the Bureau of Land Management. The agency manages one in every 10 acres of land in the country, including 8.3 million acres of public lands in Colorado, the new site of BLM headquarters. Yet in a 2016 commentary Pendley asserted that lands owned by the federal government should be sold. What in real life would seem an instant disqualification is, in the upside-down world of Trump’s Washington, a recommendation. And if animus toward public lands weren’t bad enough, Pendley came to the position with many other opposite-day credentials, such as advocating uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and favoring oil and gas extraction on national monuments.

Why not reward Pendley with official installation in the top public lands job, reasoned man-of-bottomless-bad-faith Trump, and the president in June nominated Pendley to be the BLM director. To the relief of many environmentalists, the contrast between the nominee’s views and his public lands duties proved too much even for the Republican-controlled Senate, by which the BLM director must be confirmed, and the White House has announced it will withdraw Pendley’s name from consideration.

This news isn’t so welcome as at first it might appear.

Pendley’s status as an unconfirmed agency head is another trait he shares with many other top Trump officials, such as Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting Deputy Secretary Kevin Cuccinelli at Homeland Security, and Acting Director Matthew Albence at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In February, the Washington Post reported that “‘acting’ officials have held down 22 Cabinet and Cabinet-level jobs for a combined 2,700 days.” (Pendley is said by the administration not even to be the “acting” director of the BLM but rather has authority to perform as if he were the director, a dubious distinction that appears merely to afford a way around the tenure-limiting Vacancy Reform Act.)

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The advantage for Trump is that he can install an incompetent loyalist while avoiding any pesky need to seek the Senate’s approval. On the other hand, treating this stopgap appointment as a permanent one is an affront to the Senate, and its leaders could assert the Senate’s advice-and-consent prerogative.

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s supine Senate has proved that there is nothing Trump can do at which it would take offense, and the odious Pendley, withdrawn for permanent status as he might be, very well could continue to serve indefinitely, just as if the Senate had confirmed him.

  Keeping him on the job anyway shows the depth of disdain Secretary Bernhardt and President Trump have for the Constitution.   -Jennifer Rokala, of Center for Western Priorities

“Keeping him on the job anyway shows the depth of disdain Secretary Bernhardt and President Trump have for the Constitution,” Jennifer Rokala, Center for Western Priorities executive director, said in a statement after news of Pendley’s busted nomination circulated.

Sen. Cory Gardner’s response to Pendley underscores the Senate’s abandonment of its checks-and-balances role. When he’s pressed on Pendley’s leadership at BLM, Gardner is evasive or offers some assurance that he has “difficult questions” for Pendley.

No better time to ask those questions than now, but Gardner doubtless feels empowered to bury them. According to a report by Colorado Newsline correspondent Jacob Fischler, the White House move to withdraw Pendley’s nomination could indicate it sought “to protect three vulnerable Republican senators from Western states” — including Gardner — “from a tough vote.”

The only effective check on Pendley’s accountability-skirting leadership arrangement appears to be the one reserved to the ballot box.