Agriculture · Highlight

“Godspeed with the Witch Hunt”: Costa, Cox vote to OK subpoenas to probe Valley water boost

Two Valley Congressmen cast votes Wednesday morning to approve granting House Democrats the authority to investigate and potentially nullify the Trump administration’s moves to boost water supplies to the San Joaquin Valley.

Reps. Jim Costa (D–Fresno) and TJ Cox (D–Fresno) joined fellow Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee to grant wide-ranging subpoena power to the committee’s chair, Raul Grijalva (D–Ariz.), to investigate the Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce Departments.

A key inquiry likely to be explored by Grijalva, with the support of key subcommittee chair Rep. Jared Huffman (D–San Rafael) is to dig into the Trump administration’s issuance of new biological opinions governing the Central Valley Project.

The opinions, which replaced ones issued ten years ago, gives the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Fish and Wildlife the ability to engage in real-time monitoring of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to determine if water can be pumped south into the San Joaquin Valley.

Previously, water pumping was determined by a rigid, calendar-based schedule.

Grijalva and Huffman contended that Bernhardt, who served as counsel Fresno-based Westlands Water District before being appointed Deputy Interior Secretary in 2017, unduly influenced the release of the opinions.

During debate on the proposal, Costa – who signaled unease about voting in favor of the rule change last year – signaled support for “meaningful oversight.”

“Having been here 16 years, my observation is that Congress does oversight in a haphazard fashion – at best,” Costa said in remarks during debate on a resolution granting Grijalva unilateral subpoena authority.

Costa did note, however, that some oversight has veered in untoward directions.

“Both sides depending upon who has been in the majority and who has been in the minority have sometimes used the oversight process for political purposes,” Costa said. “But I think that’s historical.”

The longtime Valley rep said that, despite the wide latitude granted to Grijalva via the rule change, he found sufficient avenues to express concern over subpoenas that were “not constructive.”

Cox did not issue any remarks over the resolution during the hearing.

It’s worth noting that Grijalva also has a wide array of other Interior-related inquiries not rooted in California’s water wars – including a decision to relocate the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo.

The Arizona Democrat contended that Interior was stonewalling a number of requests for information submitted by the committee.

Ahead of the meeting, the Department of Interior’s press shop shot back at Grijalva’s claim.

GOP looks down the line

Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee were dismayed at the push for Grijalva to have sweeping, unilateral subpoena power.

Ranking member Rob Bishop (R–Utah) pushed an amendment to the rule that provided some minor limits to Grijalva.

Under the amendment, Grijalva would have to provide written notice of a subpoena to the ranking member with a justification for the request seven days before issuing a subpoena.

The amendment also allows a majority of committee members to halt a proposed subpoena during that seven-day window and call for a special meeting to review and vote on said subpoena.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R–Elk Grove) remarked that Republicans, upon retaking the House majority, could turn such subpoena power against well-financed environmental groups and demand their internal records.

“Before voting, you might want to consider Clint Eastwood’s famous question: ‘Do you feel lucky?'” McClintock rhetorically asked, referencing the film Dirty Harry.

McClintock and Bishop noted that they similarly struggled to acquire information from the Interior Department under the Obama administration.

The Californian joked that former Interior Sec. Sally Jewell was “not exactly Kathy Chatterbox.”

Bernhardt strikes back

Following the committee’s vote to authorizes Grijalva’s subpoena power, Interior chief Bernhardt issued a statement via Twitter to strike back.

He noted that Interior produced more than 21,000 documents totalling more than 200,000 pages in response to 80 requests by the Natural Resources panel.

“Today’s action by [the committee] demonstrates they won’t let facts stand in the way of their rhetoric,” Bernhardt said in part of his statement. “Going forward, the Department will take today’s action into account for every decision it makes to deal with this Committee.”

Bernhardt had one more thing to offer, Grijalva and Huffman.

“Godspeed with the witch hunt.”

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.