Rep. Mark Sanford wanted to let the White House know he disapproved of the administration's decision to exempt Florida from its expanded offshore drilling proposal, but not his home state of South Carolina. So he went on cable TV.
Sure enough, the White House noticed.
Hours after the Republican went on CNN and all but accused the administration of hypocrisy — “you can’t say, ‘I don’t want to see an oil rig from Mar-a-Lago as I look out from the waters of Palm Beach but it’s okay to look at an oil rig from Hilton Head or Charleston’” — Sanford got a call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
“His first comment was, ‘I heard you were on Fox,’” Sanford recalled in an interview with McClatchy, hardly holding back a smile.
“I said, ‘I wasn’t on Fox.’ He said, ‘Okay, you were on some other national television show, because I got a call.’
“He’s calling me, and the first reference was not about policy. It wasn’t, ‘Hello, how are you?’ It was about a TV hit,” Sanford continued, “which goes back to the larger point: Any administration is going to be sensitive to public criticism on something that they’re advancing. CNN, national news, that’s talking to a lot of people.”
Sanford, who represents a coastal district that would be affected by the administration’s expansion plans, is in the minority in the Republican Party — and his Congressional delegation — in his opposition to both offshore drilling and seismic testing for oil and natural gas.
On Capitol Hill, he’s made efforts to thwart changes to spending bills that would fund drilling. He’s pushed for changes to legislation that would ban the practice, too.
He is preparing to lead the charge against a measure championed by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., that would gut one of the last federal laws protecting oceans from indiscriminate oil and gas exploration.
When it comes to the administration, he’s written and signed onto several letters emphasizing his position. But Sanford is also looking to let the White House know he has complaints by using the medium President Donald Trump employs most frequently to gauge public opinion and act accordingly: Cable news.
Sanford wouldn’t elaborate much on his phone call with Zinke. An Interior Department spokeswoman would not comment on Zinke’s engagement with lawmakers, other than to say in a prepared statement the secretary “looks forward to meeting with more governors and coastal representatives who want to discuss the draft program.”
Sanford did say he and Zinke had a longstanding relationship, going back to their days serving together in Congress. Zinke, a former Republican Congressman representing Montana, had at one point asked Sanford to be his roommate in Washington, but Sanford decided to continue sleeping in his congressional office rent-free.
Still, Sanford said Zinke is now engaging with him in a way the interior secretary might not have otherwise. Sanford also thinks there’s now room to negotiate and potentially get a better deal for South Carolina.
“(Zinke) asked for the whole loaf, recognizing in politics that’s something most of the time you don’t get,” Sanford said, describing the Interior Department’s initial plan.
Zinke is reaching out to others members, too, such as Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican who represents the Virginia coast and also opposes offshore drilling. Taylor told McClatchy he was also confident the administration was open to hearing the arguments against its initial proposal.
Taylor said he appreciated Zinke’s outreach because he, Sanford and others faced extra challenges gaining traction for legislative solutions on Capitol Hill. Unlike the Florida delegation, which is largely united in opposition to the proposal, Taylor and Sanford did not have backing from the majority of their fellow congressional Virginians and South Carolinians.
In a further sign of the Florida delegation’s clout, the House Natural Resources Committee is putting together a working group of Florida members to determine how to move forward with environmental and energy legislation that doesn’t run afoul of the administration’s exemption.
No such working group is currently being formed to consider other states’ concerns, though committee chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the Florida group could “set precedent” for South Carolina, Virginia and others.
State Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican from Beaufort, S.C., has been invited to testify at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on Friday as the lone opponent of seismic testing. He told McClatchy he has been using local media to educate colleagues, constituents and elected officials about the dangers of the practice.
“For all the talk about fake news and all the talk about the proliferation of information that isn’t correct, I think there still is that bedrock relationship between journalism and what people read and how people inform their decisions,” said Davis.
Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., who represents Myrtle Beach, is one of Sanford’s key state allies opposing offshore drilling. He also now opposes seismic testing, the practice of firing air gun blasts underwater to determine whether there’s oil and gas. Some studies say the blasts harm marine life.
Rice said he preferred to let Gov. Henry McMaster lead efforts to get an exemption for South Carolina, and sent a letter to Zinke this week outlining the case.
Rice agreed, though, that speaking out was most helpful for the state at this point.
“We need to let the administration know our opinion,” he said.