As the future dims for Trumpcare, one administration official has apparently taken it upon himself to threaten lawmakers. Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior, allegedly contacted Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan about Senator Murkowski's "no" vote on the latest version of Republican health care reform. Zinke suggested that the state might come to regret the decision, in a veiled threat.
The Department of the Interior is heavily involved in the decision-making process for activities like granting oil and gas permits, reviewing mineral rights and using other natural resources on both federal and tribal lands. In Alaska, a state that relies heavily on resource extraction, a good relationship with the department is critical -- failure to gain approval from Interior could snarl major projects, including those bringing key jobs and other economic growth to remote communities.
President Donald Trump had already lashed out at Murkowski for her vote, which proved to be a critical deciding point in the failure of the bill. And this isn't the first time the president has used Twitter to make critical statements about lawmakers and government agencies.
Sullivan and Murkowski both evidently received calls from Zinke with warnings about the state's energy future, though they didn't go into lengthy detail.
In addition to concerns about pending and future projects, the state is also worried about potential Interior Department appointments for people from Alaska. The positions can represent important jobs, as well as opportunities to help shape federal land use policy. And being shut out of these opportunities would leave the state at a disadvantage.
The Department of the Interior's Inspector General's Office just announced that it will be looking into reports of the threat. Internal investigations of this nature are important for the integrity of federal agencies.
If their investigation turns up evidence to support the concerns raised by people on both sides of the aisle, it would certainly cast a negative light on the Department of the Interior's ethics. Many federal agencies are in a position to have tremendous influence over the social and economic well-being of individual states, and evidence of threats to states over individual votes is very troubling.
It could also raise some questions about whether ethically questionable activities could govern which projects are and aren't approved at the agency.
While the Department of the Interior hasn't responded to questions for comment, Zinke seems eager to smooth over rumor. He even posted a photograph of himself drinking beer with Senator Murkowski, calling them "friends," as the news about the threats broke.
Murkowski's office has also remained fairly tight-lipped about what happened during the call, playing down some of the allegations surrounding what Zinke said and how seriously she and her fellow senator took it.
Murkowski, notably, is quite popular in Alaska, and the concern driving her vote was with the speed of the legislation, not necessarily the content. The senator said she wasn't pleased at how quickly it was moving, as the high speed left little time for thoughtfully considered hearings and opportunities to discuss the full ramifications of the legislation. Murkowski was also concerned by reports from her constituents, who worried that the Republican bill as presented might make it difficult to afford health care.