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August 2, 2014

The Coal War Chronicles | Madisonville

Finally. A war that Republicans think the Obama administration is waging effectively. Most Americans won’t have noticed the War on Coal, but the House Natural Resources Committee got together on Thursday to tut-tut about the president’s ruthless treatment of the enemy.

The Coal War Chronicles | MadisonvilleTut-tut may overstate members’ engagement in this hearing.  Chairman Doc Hastings from Washington and ranking member Peter A. DeFazio from Oregon were about as excitable as two doctors delivering babies and treating horse-kickings in a rural medical practice, circa 1955. Hastings and DeFazio also happen to look like two country doctors, circa 1955. Doc Hastings is the sterner, round-faced one. Doc DeFazio is the younger, smiling one. Doc DeFazio also gives the impression that he’s disappearing beneath his collar.

The committee brought in Robert Knox, an assistant inspector general for investigations who’s been looking into the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement at the Department of the Interior.  The Surface Mining people’s alleged War on Coal crime was to pressure a contractor to play down the number of jobs that would be lost because of a proposed regulation and then to fire the contractor for refusing to do so.

Republicans put more than twice as many soldiers on this battlefield as the Democrats, but it didn’t do much good.  Inspectors general aren’t very good witnesses. Members of Congress try to provoke them into comments that have nothing to do with the investigation, but Inspector General 101 class teaches them to avoid such elementary traps.

Knox said the contractor wasn’t fired, that reasonable explanations were available for the estimated jobs impact of the regulation, and that nobody applied any political pressure.  Republican forces’ morale sank. They couldn’t yield their time fast enough. Outnumbering the enemy by more than 2-to-1 doesn’t help if you’re unarmed.

North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer lifted the Republicans’ spirits briefly when he disclosed that he spent 10 years as his state’s coal-mining regulator.  Cramer’s website, by the way, says he has a doctorate in leadership. Doctor Leader Cramer, coal warrior. The Republicans must have felt like orcs watching Lurtz move into battle. But Cramer disappointed, focusing on an Interior Department employee that the inspector general discovered had made a smart-aleck comment about rule-making and the real world being different things.

The Democrats didn’t fare much better, but they didn’t have to. Doc DeFazio tried to yield his opening statement time only to discover his Democratic colleagues didn’t want it. New Jersey’s Rush D. Holt finally agreed and stammered something out.

The good news is that this coal war crime revolved around an estimated loss of 7,000 jobs and the wasted $3.7 million paid to a contractor said to have done an unsatisfactory job.  No zeros are missing in those numbers. You’d expect a couple of small-town doctors to pay attention to the little things.

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