On Sept. 13, the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee devoted two and a half hours to grilling Interior Department officials over a two-year-old report that led to a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
House Republicans have claimed the report gave the impression that the drilling freeze was supported by an independent panel of engineers, when it was not. An investigation by Interior's inspector general concluded, however, that the administration did not intentionally misrepresent the report.
Republican committee members grilled special assistant to Interior secretary’s counsel Neal Kemkar and former Minerals Management Service head Mary Inshee on the meanings of words used in emails, exchanged among Interior officials, on the intent of the administration in imposing the six-month moratorium, and even suggested that the two witnesses be held in contempt of Congress for not providing documents they said they did not have authority to release.
Democrats, meanwhile, repeatedly questioned the point of having the hearing in the first place, argued that the committee should be holding hearings on the spill itself, and called for points of order that disrupted the hearing.
"The administration falsely stated in their report that the moratorium was reviewed and supported by engineering experts, but we all know that wasn't true," committee chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said at the start of the hearing. "The people in the Gulf deserve to know how and why that happened."
Things came to a head when Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) suggested that Kemkar and Ishee should be held in contempt of Congress for not providing subpoenaed documents to the committee. Both witnesses argued that they had no authority to provide the documents to the committee, noting that Interior's Office of the Solicitor General had directed them not to do so. But McClintock argued that subpoenas require officials to comply even if they are ordered otherwise by superiors.
Lawmakers said they were hoping to get to the bottom of the editing of the report, but Louisiana Republican Rep. Jeff Landry summed up the primary aim of the hearing-to criticize the administration's moratorium and drilling policies in the Gulf of Mexico. "The reason we are here is to show the American people that this government hurt them in the pocketbook," he said.