Cynicism has always been a part of politics, but rarely are politicians so brazen and self-serving as President Donald Trump and his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, have been over the past week.
First they announced a new offshore drilling plan that would force unwilling coastal states to open up their waters to oil and gas exploration, prioritizing “energy dominance” over long-standing local concerns. Then just a few days later, they gave swingstate Florida a special exception from the unpopular drilling plan, crediting Gov. Rick Scott, R, who may run for Senate this year, for securing the dispensation.
Critics, including longtime drilling opponent Sen. Bill Nelson, D, Scott’s likely opponent in November, immediately accused the Trump administration of orchestrating these announcements to boost the Republican in a key 2018 race. Yet the alternative - that this spectacle was not planned but just as rushed and arbitrary as it seemed - is hardly better.
Also discomfiting is the question of how much Trump’s ownership of Florida beachfront property factored into the decision. The president appears to be treating public policy as a tool for partisan and personal gain while reinforcing the sense that important federal decisions depend on his moment-to-moment sense of how they might help or hurt him.
For his part, Zinke defended the decision to exempt Florida by arguing that the administration always intended to consult with governors before making any final drilling decisions. “Local voice matters,” he insisted. “I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.”
It took approximately no time for leaders in other drilling-skeptical states to call Zinke on his words.
“Virginia’s governor (and governor-elect) have made this same request, but we have not received the same commitment. Wonder why...” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., tweeted.
“California is also ‘unique’ & our ‘coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,’ “ California Attorney General Xavier Becerra tweeted. “If that’s your standard, we, too, should be removed from your list. Immediately.”
Shortly after the announcement, a bipartisan group of governors from states such as New York, Oregon and South Carolina all asked publicly for their own special exceptions.
We have long advocated for increased drilling off the country’s coasts, as long as it is smartly regulated. But the decision to do so will be neither durable nor fair if it comes by selectively ignoring the complaints of states in which the president does not identify a political or personal interest. One cannot help but compare this episode to the tax bill Trump just signed, which strips deductions from taxpayers in blue states in order to fund various GOP ideological priorities.
If the Florida decision had been the result of a thoughtful process that ended in a report explaining how Florida’s coast is somehow more precious than every other stretch of coast the Trump administration has slated to open, it would have at least appeared less capricious.
Instead, the administration exposed one of the big drivers of its severe dysfunction: its attitude that the federal government is a fiefdom that Trump and his lieutenants rule according to their whim.