David Bernhardt, who has served in a variety of senior positions at the Interior Department, was confirmed as secretary by the Senate on Thursday by a 56-41 vote, a victory for cattle producers, energy companies and other interests who see him as an ally on public land management and endangered species regulation.
Three Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, as well as Independent Angus King of Maine, joined Republicans to confirm Bernhardt. Senators Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and David Perdue, R-Ga., did not vote.
The sprawling department has a wide-ranging impact on agriculture, especially but not exclusively in the West. Interior agencies include the Bureau of Land Management; Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act; Bureau of Reclamation, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Bernhardt has been serving as acting secretary since December, when Ryan Zinke resigned as investigations into his real estate dealings began to pile up.
Reaction to the vote was swift from groups opposed to Bernhardt. "Rushing to move forward with Bernhardt’s nomination without clarification on his numerous ethical lapses and investigative requests is not only a disservice to the American people, but it also means that Interior will again be led by a secretary shrouded in scandal," Western Values Project executive director Chris Saeger said.
But shortly after the vote, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, took to the floor to defend Bernhardt's integrity and say he is well qualified to lead Interior.
“I know this wasn’t an easy confirmation process, but when you look at his background, this is actually one of the most qualified individuals to serve as secretary that we’ve had in many, many years," Sullivan said.
Bernhardt's nomination had the support of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Ducks Unlimited, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, among others. After the vote, Ethan Lane, senior executive director of the Public Lands Council and NCBA Federal Lands, called the confirmation "welcome news for livestock producers across the country." He added, however, "While we celebrate the confirmation of a new secretary, several senior positions at the Department of Interior remain vacant. We urge the White House to quickly address these vacancies by re-nominating qualified candidates like Aurelia Skipwith to serve as Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as filling other critical vacancies throughout the department and administration.”
Skipwith has worked at Monsanto, USDA, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Alltech.
Groups opposed to Bernhardt's nomination include the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife.
Bernhardt’s nomination came under fire from Democrats, including Ron Wyden, D-Ore., because of allegations that he suppressed an analysis on the impacts of three pesticides — chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon — on endangered species, and had improperly acted on issues benefiting former clients.
Eight Democrats sent a letter last week to the Interior Department’s deputy inspector general asking her to examine Bernhardt’s role in delaying the release of a draft biological opinion that found chlorpyrifos exposure would harm about 1,400 endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service says it’s refining its methodology to incorporate information on how the pesticides are actually used.
During his confirmation hearing last month, Bernhardt insisted that he follows the highest ethical standards, and he defended his management of the endangered species analysis. Republicans strenuously defended his nomination. "You have impressed me as an administrator, as a legal mind, and as a citizen who has an unusually compelling commitment to the rule of law and sound public policy," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told Bernhardt.
Bernhardt, a lawyer, was confirmed as deputy secretary of the department by the Senate, 56-39, in 2017. He also held a number of positions at the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration, including as solicitor, deputy solicitor, and as then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s deputy chief of staff.
Before and after serving at Interior, Bernhardt was a lawyer at Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck in Denver. He was an associate at the firm from 1998-2001, and after serving at Interior, he came back to Brownstein to lead the firm’s Natural Resources Department, where he lobbied for energy companies and Westlands Water District, among others. Westlands, the largest agricultural water district in the country, is made up of more than 1,000 square miles of farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties.
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