Politics didn’t play a role in plans to close the U.S. Bureau of Mines offices in Spokane, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Wednesday.
But, hours later, a bureau spokesman appeared to be contradicting his boss’ testimony to Congress.
The closure, which would cost about 177 jobs, was planned “long before the election,” Babbitt told a congressional panel reviewing his 1996 budget.
No it wasn’t, a bureau spokesman said later. The decision to close offices in Spokane and several other Western cities wasn’t made until January.
In part, the decision was a reaction to the November elections, in which voters who elected Republicans to Congress seemed to be telling the federal government to cut spending, bureau spokesman David Barna said.
At a hearing of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday morning, Babbitt was grilled by Rep. George Nethercutt about plans to close two bureau offices in Spokane.
The offices have an annual budget of $10 million.
Nethercutt, a Spokane Republican, wanted to know why the administration is proposing to close seven offices in districts represented by Republicans, while three of four offices that will remain open are in Democratic districts.
“Please dissuade me that that’s being done for other than political reasons,” Nethercutt said.
Replied Babbitt: “This was done long before the election.”
The partisan breakdown of the districts for offices that will be closed or remain open is a “mere coincidence,” the secretary said.
When Babbitt offered to prove that fact, Nethercutt asked him to produce the documentation.
An hour later, Barna appeared to undercut the secretary’s claims by giving a different chronology of the decision to close regional offices.
“Before the election, there were no plans to close Spokane or Denver or Reno or any other facility,” Barna said.
Closing the bureau’s Spokane offices was suggested several times in past years, but had always been averted by then-House Speaker Tom Foley.
Two days after Nethercutt defeated Foley, Barna said there was no chance the Spokane office would close and that an agreement between Foley and the Clinton administration to keep it open would remain in effect.
Wednesday, Barna said the plans changed early this year when the administration told the bureau to cut an extra $20 million from its budget.
“We felt that our budget would stabilize at $152 million,” Barna said. “We were surprised and shocked by the size of the reductions, but they were prompted by the election.”
Those cuts were triggered by voters who seemed to be asking for smaller government, Barna said.
He noted that House Republicans in the Contract with America, their campaign platform, called for closing the Bureau of Mines.
The bureau now has 12 field offices across the country. To streamline the operation, the administration plans to consolidate the offices into four “centers of expertise.”
Nethercutt said he was surprised by Barna’s comments, which indicate to him the bureau believes there is some merit in keeping the Spokane office open.
But he wants to give Babbitt the chance to produce the documentation the secretary said he has.
Nethercutt said he believes mine safety in the Northwest depends on keeping Spokane’s offices open.
“To not have any resources available through this office seems to me to be short-sighted,” he said.