Republican House puts Doc Hastings into key chairmanship
This mainstream GOP congressman, seen as a friend to the energy industry, receives failing marks from most environmentalist organizations.
Seattle Times Washington bureau
Rep. Doc HastingsAge: 69
Party affiliation: Republican
Political career: A former executive and president of his family's company, Columbia Basin Paper and Supply in Pasco, he served eight years in the state Legislature before being elected to Congress in 1994. He's been re-elected eight times.
Family: Married; three children and eight grandchildren
Nickname: His first name is Richard, but he goes by Doc, a childhood nickname bestowed by his older brother.
WASHINGTON — Year after year, Rep. Doc Hastings has opposed nearly every major bill considered important by environmental groups.
The Pasco Republican has voted no to curbing greenhouse-gas pollutants, no to new federal wilderness and conservation areas, and no to spending more money to upgrade wastewater-treatment plants and make schools more energy-efficient.
Hastings is hardly alone: In 2009, he was one of 82 House Republicans — or nearly half the party's total in the chamber — who received a grade of zero in the most recent annual environmental scorecard issued by the League of Conservation Voters. Hastings' lifetime score is 2 of a possible 100.
Hastings, however, isn't just any Republican.
When the new Congress begins Wednesday, he will become chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. That will make Hastings a key voice shaping federal policies on oil and gas drilling on public lands and offshore waters, mining, wildlife, fisheries, national parks and Native American affairs.
To the consternation of environmentalists — and to the hopes of the energy industry — Hastings widely is expected to assert his powers more aggressively than his predecessor, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
Hastings, who won his ninth term in November, has criticized the Obama administration sharply for what he calls a "de facto" ban on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. He also says opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration is among his priorities.
Hastings champions the Republican Party's "all of the above" energy policy, which embraces renewable energy such as solar and wind power while also pushing for more drilling and mining.
Dan Kish, policy chief for the business-backed Institute for Energy Research and a former chief of staff of the House Natural Resources Committee, calls that a welcome shift.
The federal government owns nearly 2.5 billion acres of land, Kish said, including the 200-mile-wide outer continental shelf. Of that, he said, less than 5 percent has been opened for energy exploration.
"It's the official policy of the federal government to stop development of natural resources in this country," Kish said. Hastings' committee "is in a very good position to look at that."
In an interview, Hastings said he supports the pursuit of all alternatives to fossil fuels, including hydroelectric and nuclear power. At the same time, he argued, the United States should tap domestic energy deposits more fully to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
"It's in the best interest of our country to have diverse sources of power," Hastings said. "We should not ignore the oil, gas and coal that we have."
GOP version of Murray
Hastings, who will turn 70 in February, has a low-key manner and a round face and graying goatee that lend him an impish air. He is regarded as a capable, loyal Republican whose politics squarely mirror that of mainstream conservatives.
He will be "the most powerful and influential member of the House from Washington," said Chris Vance, a veteran GOP political strategist. "He is a solid, traditional small-town conservative. He's not crazy right wing."
Hastings isn't known for courting the limelight. Vance says he sees many parallels between Hastings and another member of the state's congressional delegation. Both are known as behind-the-scenes workhorses who enjoy the confidences of their respective party's leadership.
"In many ways, Doc is the Republican version of [Sen.] Patty Murray," Vance said. "And I mean that as a compliment."
One of Hastings' most-visible stints in the House came after he took on the chairmanship of the ethics committee in 2005. He led an investigation of former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who resigned after making sexual advances to teenage House pages.
During Hastings' tenure on that committee, he and former chief of staff Ed Cassidy faced questions over their ethics. After the disputed ballot recount of the 2004 governor's race between Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi, Cassidy called U.S. Attorney John McKay in Seattle to ask what federal prosecutors were doing about it.
McKay subsequently was among nine U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush White House, dismissals widely viewed as politically motivated.
Hastings and Cassidy said the call merely was a status check and denied it was improper.
For nearly three decades before he entered Congress in 1995, Hastings was an executive and then president of Columbia Basin Paper and Supply in Pasco. The Spokane native has won his past seven races handily, with at least 60 percent of the votes.
He has focused on issues that most affect the largely rural 4th Congressional District, including access to water, trade agreements to open new markets for farmers, and cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation.
He has maintained close ties to business interests. Oil-and-gas companies, for example, contributed nearly $85,000 to his most recent re-election campaign, making Hastings one of that industry's top recipients of donations among House members, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that monitors money in politics.
He believes the government must strike a better balance between being good stewards of public resources and tapping them for economic benefit.
Restricting oil or gas drilling, Hastings said, deprives Americans of jobs and potential fuel. He pledges to "bring sunshine" to any Obama administration actions that could cost jobs and revenue.
Among his targets will be the Interior Department's new regulation on hydraulic fracturing, a widely used technique for extracting natural gas by pumping chemicals underground to break rocks apart. Hastings has called on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to appear before his committee to explain what Hastings called "duplicative and burdensome" permit requirements.
In December, he criticized Salazar's announcement that the Interior Department will begin reasserting its power to identify wilderness areas that could be put off-limits to development and motorized vehicles. Hastings called the move "a backdoor approach" to undercut both Congress and taxpayers.
Hastings also has vowed to bring more deliberation and debate over bills. He voted against the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, a massive conservation measure that, among other things, set aside 2 million acres in nine states as wilderness areas.
Hastings said he objected less to the 1,000-page bill's contents than to Democrats ushering it through Congress with scant time for review.
"We will not have omnibus bills" under Republican control, he said.
Not all environmental groups view Hastings' ascension with trepidation. After all, he will chair only one House committee out of a dozen that have overlapping jurisdiction over energy and environmental issues. What's more, Democrats still control the Senate.
Mike Matz, director of Campaign for America's Wilderness, part of the nonprofit Pew Environmental Group, said natural-resources issues often divide lawmakers along geographic faults instead of political lines.
"We work with both sides of the aisle, and we look forward to working with Doc Hastings," Matz said.
Matz noted that the only wilderness bill approved by the House last year was the expansion of Alpine Lakes Wilderness area east of Seattle. That measure was proposed by Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican from Auburn, and by Democratic Sens. Murray and Maria Cantwell.
The House passed the measure by voice vote in March, with no record of individual votes. As the top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, Hastings agreed to advance the bill for a vote by the full House despite his long-standing concerns that such designations could restrict the public's use of the lands.
The bill died Dec. 22, the last day of the 111th Congress, after Senate Republicans blocked Murray's motion for unanimous consent.
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