Rep. Chellie Pingree has been elected the new chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that holds the purse strings for a wide swath of federal environmental, land use, arts, and tribal affairs agencies and programs.

The position confers substantial power and influence to the Democrat, who has represented Maine’s 1st District for the past 12 years, especially as her party now controls the executive branch and both chambers of Congress. The Appropriations Committee chairwoman, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., announced Pingree’s appointment late Monday afternoon.

“It is a really big deal,” said Mark B. Harkins, a former appropriations committee staffer and lobbyist who is now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. “The subcommittee chairs in Appropriations, unlike the other committees, are really powerful. There’s a reason the nickname for the 12 chairs are ‘the Cardinals,’ because they have incredible power in determining the direction, the resources, and the guidance that are in the bills for the agencies they each oversee.”

As the new chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, Pingree can give direction to the staffers who draft the budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian, and almost the entire Department of Interior, which includes the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other entities.

“Most of the differences you will see from last year’s bill to this year’s will be based on what her preferences are,” Harkins said. “Her fingerprints will be all over this bill. She’ll be the CEO of it.”

In the arcane process by which House Democrats determine appropriations committee roles, Pingree gained the position by accumulating seniority on this particular subcommittee. She replaces Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who is moving to a leadership position in another committee.

Pingree is the first Maine congressional representative in living memory to hold a House appropriations subcommittee chair. Sen. Susan Collins sits on the Senate appropriations committee, but as a Republican she is now in the minority. In the last Congress, Collins chaired the Senate’s transportation, housing and urban development subcommittee.

In an interview with the Press Herald, Pingree said her top initial priority will be undoing the damage done to the various agencies by former President Donald Trump’s appointees.

“Under the Trump administration there was a real disdain for anything related to climate change and frankly government in general,” she said. “Departments like the EPA and the Department of Interior have been gutted and there have been a lot of cuts and a lot of attrition of knowledgeable and experienced people. Getting them staffed up again and funded needs to happen very quickly.”

Trump’s secretaries had come in with elaborate plans to reorganize the Interior Department, Pingree said, but they didn’t get past the demolition phase. “My understanding is that it’s just total chaos, that a lot of good people have left, and that everything related to climate change has been destroyed.”

President Biden’s nominee to head the department, Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, will be the first Native American to hold the position, which oversees most of the federal government’s relationships with federally recognized tribes, including the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, the Houlton Band of Maliseet and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. Haaland and Pingree are friends and have introduced bills together in the two years they have served together in the House.

In terms of Maine specifically, Pingree cited the need to relieve the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog at Acadia National Park, the NEH and NEA’s role in keeping Maine arts organizations afloat during the pandemic, and ways the Forest Service can help efforts by Maine’s forest products industries to create new products like biofuels and advanced wood composites, which also help mitigate climate change.

Gov. Janet Mills has committed Maine to an ambitious set of climate change targets, including becoming carbon neutral by 2045 and reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 in comparison with 1990 levels, the standard world benchmark for emissions reductions. Pingree’s daughter, former Maine House speaker Hannah Pingree, oversees the effort as director of the governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future.

Joel Clement of Wayne is a Falmouth High School graduate who headed the Interior Department’s Office of Policy Analysis and gained national attention in 2017 when he became a whistleblower on the dismantling of climate change work by Trump appointees. He said Pingree’s ascension to the subcommittee chairmanship was a positive development for the department and for anyone who cares about climate change.

“All of the conservation missions within the department were dismantled, and the U.S. Geological Survey’s whole climate science and land use mission area was dissolved,” Clement said. “All of that will need to be rebooted to meet the priorities of the new president.” He also spotlighted damage done to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which he said “has been gutted in terms of personnel and science capacity and grant-making.”

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said in a written statement that the tribe was “thrilled” to learn Pingree would be heading the subcommittee, which oversees agencies of critical importance to Maine’s tribes. “She has long had strong relationships with Maine’s tribal nations and understands the issues we and our surrounding communities face,” Francis said.

Francis emphasized the need to adequately fund the Indian Health Service (which has helped the tribe respond to COVID-19), the tribal court system (which is seeking to expand its jurisdiction), and a range of Interior and EPA programs that deal with pollution and climate change mitigation, including the protection of moose (which are plagued by ticks in the warming winters) and ash trees (used to make baskets and traditional medicines, but threatened by a pest, the emerald ash borer).

“Between Representative Pingree taking on a new chairmanship and President Biden nominating the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior, we are optimistic that more federal resources will come to Maine over the next few years,” he added.


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