There’s at least one thing about which the Trump administration continues to be clear and consistent: It insists its federal departments and agencies align with its priorities. This isn’t surprising. But as the Washington Post notes, the scope of “the new approval process appears to be without precedent within the department.”
According to a December 28th memo issued by Scott Cameron—principal deputy assistant Interior secretary for policy, management and budget—that was obtained by the Washington Post, literally any award of at least $50,000 “to a non-profit organization that can legally engage in advocacy” or “to an institution of higher education” can be subject to review by political appointees.
The Post quotes at length from David J. Hayes, who served as Interior’s deputy secretary under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and is presently executive director of the New York University School of Law’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. Hayes wrote in an email that,
Subjugating Congress’ priorities to 10 of the Secretary’s own priorities is arrogant, impractical and, in some cases, likely illegal.… Our senior leadership team never set up a process like this—that is, a process that identifies broad categories of contracts, at modest financial levels, that must be kicked upstairs to headquarters for political sign-off. To the contrary, we recognized that government contract processes are complex, and that political interference would sully the integrity of contracting processes that applicants have a right to expect are governed with fairness, impartiality, and integrity as their guide.
This December 28th memo follows in the footsteps of our story last September about the EPA’s new grantmaking process showed that an administration that denies climate change requires that data and good science be ignored. Like its EPA precursor, the memo specifically calls out those “to a nonprofit organization that can legally engage in advocacy” or “to an institution of higher education.” Science Magazine pointed out that the memo warned—in boldface, for emphasis—that “Instances circumventing the secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) spelled out his concerns in a statement released after learning of the Interior Department’s new guidelines: “I’m reviewing this new grant approval regime, but I’m immediately skeptical given the administration’s track record. This grant approval process looks like a backdoor way to stop funds going to legitimate scientific and environmental projects.”
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New grant procedures are only one way the administration is seeking alignment with its worldview. A new study (“Changing the Digital Climate”) by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), a consortium of academic and nonprofit workers, shows how aggressively economic concerns now trump the threat of climate change and the need for good science.
In the first year of the Trump administration, we have observed alterations to many federal agency Web resources about climate change. Although there is no evidence of any removals of climate data, we have documented overhauls and removals of documents, webpages, and entire websites, as well as significant language shifts.
According to CNN, the report documents how “the Trump administration has eliminated or replaced references to climate change, renewable energy and similar topics.” Concerns about responding to “climate change” are now referred to as efforts to expand “sustainability”; concerns about the impact of increasing levels of “greenhouse gases” now refer to the less precise and meaningful idea of “emissions.” The report found that “descriptions of agency priorities shifted to emphasize job creation and downplay renewable fuels as replacements for fossil fuels. At the DOE [US Department of Energy], mentions of ‘clean energy; and explanations of harmful environmental impacts of fossil fuels were also removed.”
Each of us has a stake in how federal policy is made, and all of us need it to be based in reality. For educational and nonprofit organizations that rely on government funding, this realignment will be particularly challenging. For example, the Interior Department’s new procedures say that “grants and cooperative agreements of any type in any amount may be subject to an after-the-fact review process to ascertain whether the funds were appropriately expended and whether the anticipate benefits were produced.” Universities and nonprofits depending on grants from the $1.5 billion the department allocates annually now must consider if they must tailor their work to ignore their knowledge of climate change or risk the need to forfeit their funding.
At the same time, it is now more difficult for researchers, scholars, and the general public to find basic information that describes the world we live in. From EDGI’s perspective, this poses real danger as it becomes more difficult “to access the results of years of scientific and policy research funded by tax dollars [and] harder for state, local, and tribal governments to access resources designed to help them adapt to and mitigate the harms of climate change.”
In the fall, Erin Rubin closed her look at the EPA’s new approach to climate change by noting that “some nonprofit creativity may be required.” As we see more clearly how the administration’s priorities are reflected in the work of the executive branch, it may take more than creativity.—Martin Levine