HOUSTON — The Department of the Interior has decided to halt its sponsorship of all House trips to various agency sites around the country until a resolution can be found to a dispute over the rules of engagement between congressional staff and the career and political officials who facilitate the oversight visits, according to a senior department official.
The Interior Department oversees the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several other agencies.
The decision, which had not officially been rendered to Capitol Hill as of early Wednesday evening, was driven by Interior Department chief of staff Todd Willens, according to the official, who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of internal deliberations.
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It was Willens who requested that House Appropriations Committee staff member Peter Kiefhaber return immediately to Washington after an incident during a House appropriations staff tour of BLM sites in Nevada in late August in which Willens described Kiefhaber's behavior toward a Washington-based BLM official as "overly aggressive and unprofessional."
"As you are an official on travel paid by the Department, we have determined that it would be best for you to return to your duty station in Washington DC on the next available flight," Willens wrote in an email sent to Kiefhaber and provided to NBC News. "This decision was made in the best interest of the safety and well-being of our employees and to ensure that the trip can continue without further incident."
Evan Hollander, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, fired back in an email to NBC News.
"Senior staff at Interior have concocted this entire incident to stymie the House's critical oversight work," Hollander wrote. "Fabricating a story to block Congressional oversight is another example of the Trump administration's trampling of democratic norms, and Congressional Democrats will not stand for this illegal and outrageous conduct."
On Sept. 6, Willens sent a letter to the House Ethics Committee about the incident requesting an investigation, in which he alleged Kiefhaber had blocked acting BLM chief of staff Amanda Kaster from entering a meeting, called her a "minder" to the media and "verbally accosted and bullied" her.
The Democratic-run House Appropriations Committee has defended its work and Kiefhaber, a longtime aide to appropriators on both sides of the Capitol. Committee staff portrayed his interaction with Kaster as him telling her she was rude because she didn't inform him ahead of time that she would be joining meetings with agency officials in the field.
Democrats also believe the battle is a proxy fight in a larger war between Subcommittee Chairwoman Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Secretary David Bernhardt over the department's plans to relocate Interior staff from Washington to Grand Junction, Colorado, and McCollum's efforts to intervene. More broadly, the administration and the Democratic-led House have been grappling over congressional oversight power since January.
House Appropriations staff noted Thursday that a law dating back as far as 1953 requires that some of the funds Congress spends on agencies must be made available to examine how appropriated money is being used in the field.