Conflicts of Interest and the Complicated Truth About Money in Politics: Republicans Question Deb Haaland at Hearing for Interior Secretary
Do Republican senators fear for the loss of American jobs or loss of their job?
Cabinet nominee and Representative of New Mexico Deb Haaland is set to become the first Native American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet and the first to serve as the Interior Secretary. As she put it in her opening remarks, “[t]he historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me”. Historic it is. Over a century ago, the third interior secretary, Alexander Stuart, called it the Unites States’ mission to “civilize or exterminate” native people. The United States did much to carry out at that mission, forcing assimilation, violating treaties with tribal nations, and destroying tribal land. But now, a Native American woman has been nominated by President Biden to lead the department that has been at the forefront of her people’s destruction. For the first time, tribal experiences and perspectives will be represented at the highest level of government and in the most influential role.
With the Democrat’s most moderate member, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, announcing his intent to vote to confirm, Haaland is set to become Secretary Haaland. Her confirmation may even receive bipartisan support. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has relied on her state’s Indigenous vote in the past. In 2010, she won from a write-in vote in large part due to the high numbers of native turnout and support. Her home state is currently 18% American Indian of Alaskan Native. To honor their support, she may vote to confirm Haaland.
Despite Haaland’s nomination being set to go through, she faced sharp, argumentative questioning from the Republican senators on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Facially, the senators were concerned about the economic impact of her pro-environment views and the threat they may pose to American jobs. However, upon closer inspection these senators may be more concerned about protecting their own wallets.
Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) is the senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Throughout his political career, he has received over $1 million from the fossil fuel industry. In his most recent election in 2018, he received the maximum contribution of $10,000 from PACs of companies such as Chesapeake Energy, Chevron, and Koch Industries. He currently sits as one of the Senate’s top recipient’s of fossil fuel money.
His ties to the fossil fuel industry go even deeper. In his most recent personal financial disclosure, he indicated that he owned between $250,000 and $500,000 of stock in Berkshire Hathaway, whose subsidiaries transported 8% of natural gas to Americans in 2019.
Senator Barrasso became increasingly angry when questioning Haaland, accusing her of wanting to legalize drugs to make up for any tax revenue lost to the fossil fuel industry. Haaland has supported legalizing and taxing marijuana, but has not indicated that we should do so in lieu of fossil fuel taxes. Barrasso says that he remains “troubled” by Haaland’s positions on climate and energy, characterizing her positions as “radical” and out of touch with the views of the people in Wyoming.
However, Haaland’s opening remarks extended an olive branch to the right, acknowledging the impact fossil fuel’s play in our economy. She stated:
“As I’ve learned in this role, there’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come. I know how important oil and gas revenues are to fund critical services, but we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed.”
Haaland is also responsible for introducing the most bills with bipartisan support out of all the House freshmen in 2019. Further, she has received bipartisan support. Rep. Don Young (R-AK), visited the Senate hearing to introduce Haaland from across the aisle. He called her a strong nominee and friend, and quipped that “[a]nyone who thinks we’re going to call off fossil fuels immediately smoking pot”
Despite this introduction, multiple senators continued to criticize Haaland’s history and expose her as a radical environmentalist.
Senator Steve Daines took issue with Haaland’s tweet that “Republicans don’t believe in science” and demanded it be retracted. He further asked why Haaland would cosponsor a bill which protected grizzly bears in perpetuity. Haaland cooly responded “I imagine at the time, I was caring about the bears.”
Daines has cited Haaland’s support for the Green New Deal, her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and the pause on oil and gas leases on federal land as the source of his concern over Haaland’s nomination. However, like Sen. Barrasso, Sen. Daines has the oil and gas industry to thank for his political career. He has received over $1 million in fossil fuel money throughout his federal career.
Barrasso and Daines are not the only senators with strong ties to oil and gas. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) received nearly $1.7 million from oil and gas PACs over the course of his political career and his spouse owns stock in ExxonMobil and Phillips 66.
Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) received $617,000 from the oil and gas industry, with Arch Resources as her top donor. Roger Marshall’s spouse and dependent child own between $282,000 and $730,000 in oil royalty and working interests and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from oil and gas PACs.
The list of lawmakers with strong financial ties to the industry goes on and includes Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mike Lee (R-Utah), James Risch (R-Id.), James Lankford (R-OK), ad Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-TN).
A core tenet of American democracy is that we elect our lawmakers to represent our interests, not their own.
If the senators were judges, they would be facing calls for recusal. They would have a hard time convincing a defendant that they could fairly serve as a neutral third party where so much of their wealth is at stake. If these senators were acting as lawyers, they would have a hard time convincing their client they could competently represent their interests. Yet these senators, who have hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as their job at stake, get to weigh in on decisions that have far greater implications than just the size of their own wallets.
If we hold other professionals to adhere to conflict of interests standards, that same expectation should be extended to our elected officials. It is clear here that these officials are looking out for their own interests, and the interests of those who fund their campaigns. The problem is that just as in professional conflicts of interests, almost any conflict can be consented away.
The senators here all fill out personal financial disclosures which are publicly made available and their campaign contributions are not hidden away either. Voters who vote in support of these candidates are essentially consenting to this conflict when they elect these people into these roles. Whether or not a voter can truly consent to a conflict, when that conflict is funding a campaign to strategically shape that voters perception is questionable. But under the current structure, unless there is a serious change to the ethics rules, which Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has vocally advocated for, voters need to understand the magnitude of their vote.