The Amazing World of Political Byzantinery… How a CEQ Underling Overruled a Senate-Confirmed Cabinet Secretary

And I’ve been interested, as you know, in how alignment in the USG currently works. Because if the Admin has a stated policy, then are the agencies working together to implement it? What if they disagree? How are arguments worked out in practice? Who is really holding the cards, and why.. and what makes political power exactly.. donations, the buddy system??? And when we think about voting, we need to think not only about the candidate themselves, but who in the Admin will be making decisions and why. Because I’m not a political person (I consider myself politically-impaired and many of my former bosses will agree) but based on my experience, every notable decision from here on in has some 2024 considerations involved. (We used to call this “silly season” and like many things it was shorter during less partisan times).

So today, we have an interesting example, based on the rumor mill (several sources). In this case, the USDA wanted to support the bill on fire retardant that was discussed last week at the Federal Lands Subcommittee Hearing (which was interesting and I’ll have a post or two just on that).

However, as I understand it, the Secretary of Agriculture (a Senate-confirmed Cabinet member) was overruled by an underling at the Council on Environmental Quality. How did this happen? I filed a FOIA to learn more, but anyone who has more information please contact me.

Right now, I can think of two rational reasons for this point of view. 1. Giving more power to the EPA or 2. “They shouldn’t live there anyway”.- kind of a pre-re-wilding point of view. But we’ll see what it says in the FOIA.

10 thoughts on “The Amazing World of Political Byzantinery… How a CEQ Underling Overruled a Senate-Confirmed Cabinet Secretary”

  1. I have no insight regarding this specific controversy, but one of CEQ’s responsibilities is to referee environment-related disputes among federal agencies. I’m guessing that while USDA supported the bill other members of the “federal family” (I hate that phrase, but heard it a lot) opposed it. (EPA and FWS would obviously be possible contenders.) I’m further guessing the “underling” in the rumor was a water carrier – the real decision probably involved the CEQ Chair and other heavy administration hitters. CEQ is a very small agency so the bureaucratic distance between the Chair and a young detailee is never very far.

    • Thanks, Rich! This is very helpful. I am interested in the policy arguments raised by other members of the (somewhat dysfunctional) federal family, if any. Or desires for organizational hegemony.. or ??? If there are policy disagreements among agencies, wouldn’t it be better if those were documented and the decision reached rationalized (similar to a “response to comments”)?

      I realize that there are hordes of legislation, and there might not be time for careful consideration of each bill, but wouldn’t that admission be also of interest?

      I like your idea of a water carrier.. apparently the current CEQ chair is a former EPA person.. you would think that there might be a conflict of interest in her mediating disputes that involve EPA? Perhaps she would need to recuse herself, and then need a water carrier.

      And this potential water carrier is part of a long-standing group of important political folks (cabal?) in Interior, so there’s that as well.

      • Boy, it would be great if resolution of interagency disputes was documented! But often (maybe usually) it isn’t because no administration wants to air its dirty laundry. And if it is written down, the administration (any of ’em, this isn’t a partisan thing) will usually resist releasing such documents, arguing they are predecisional or deliberative process documents, which are FOIA-exempt.

        A slightly related example: a few years ago, right after BLM announced establishment of the National Landscape Conservation System, Rep. Bishop of Utah sought documents from the Obama admin explaining why BLM had done so (fearing, I think, a federal land grab). His request included asking for interagency deliberations on the NLCS. The admin dragged its feet, which just made Bishop more angry and suspicious. Eventually at least one of the documents leaked – it was an internal memo from NPS opposing BLM’s plan. It was filled with derisive comments about BLM – really pungent stuff – which I suspect is why the admin was blocking its release.

        • FWIW I agree it’s not a partisan thing, and holier than thou is not a game politicians should be playing. The worst we can imagine is usually worse than the reality.. so why not share the reality? Like those following this stuff will be .. shocked by interagency feuding?

          But I’ll bite.. why would NPS care if BLM wanted to conserve landscapes?

          • I think this was probably simply an example of NPS not wanting competition – a pale echo, perhaps, of the bitter interagency recreation rivalry of the 60s (MUSYA and Mission 66 and all that). Maybe there was something more specific going on here (for example, maybe some of the NLCS units were on land the NPS had its eyes on) but I’ve seen no evidence on that score.

            • Yes, it’s hard to admit your own self-interest and agency empire-building.. much easier to criticize other people trying to do their job.

  2. Sharon,

    Are you saying the rumor mill indicates Congress will not pursue legislation to ensure fire fighting organizations (federal in particular) have the ability to use retardant this fire season or until the permitting is completed?

  3. First, remember that CEQ is an office of the White House.
    Second, CEQ has some say over NEPA policy for the entire executive branch, partly to ensure consistency across agencies in applying a law that all agencies must comply with, so they (CEQ) appropriately get some deference on NEPA questions. Courts, for instance, often decline to give deference to agencies on NEPA procedural questions because the individual agencies are not the promulgating authority for the NEPA regs, CEQ is.


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