E&E News: TJ Cox wants to engineer better oversight

February 26, 2019
In The News

Freshman Rep. T.J. Cox starts his surprising second career as a federal watchdog today, when the Democrat from California's San Joaquin Valley leads his first hearing as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee's Oversight and Investigations panel.


A chemical engineer by training, Cox, 55, has summoned diverse witnesses including a retired football player, a displaced Puerto Rico resident and a university professor for an inquiry into what his subcommittee dubbed "the denial playbook."


The witnesses will "speak to the tactics used by various industries to mislead the public about health and environmental risks and explain how to recognize the signs of a denialist misinformation campaign," according to the subcommittee.


"We've been very clear that climate change is a top priority for this committee," Cox told E&E News in an email. "We're going to hold the Trump Administration accountable for spreading misinformation about climate science."


It's a far cry from the Oversight panel's focus during its last two years under Republican control, when it held hearings with titles like "The Costs of Denying Border Patrol Access: Our Environment and Security."


It's also a potential foreshadowing of what Cox might have in store for his panel that currently includes five Democrats and four Republicans; the senior GOP member is Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.


"Our subcommittee will exercise aggressive oversight of the Department of the Interior to ensure that its policy decisions are in line with those of the American people and our communities," Cox declared in a statement earlier this month.


Further showing his hand, Cox has already denounced acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt as "yet another Cabinet nominee with a record of fighting for the biggest corporations — polluters and Big Oil."


Cox secured the subcommittee chairmanship after eking out a 862-vote, late-declared win over Republican Rep. David Valadao. The businessman and community development leader had previously lost a 2006 challenge to then-Rep. George Radanovich.


"This subcommittee was a huge priority for me. It's important that our government responds to the needs of the American people," Cox told E&E News. "That means ensuring that the House can exercise aggressive oversight on climate change and ensuring that taxpayer dollars are well-spent."


Potentially, the visibility and leverage Cox gains as a subcommittee chairman could further aid him in retaining his seat in a congressional district where Democrats already enjoy a 43-27 percent voter registration advantage over Republicans.


Deft political footwork, though, will also be required in the district where influential farmers, including those in the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, often clash with environmentalists over water deliveries, endangered species and more.


Cox's predecessor, Valadao, for instance, repeatedly authored legislation to implement an ambitious irrigation drainage settlement with Westlands. The bills stalled, effectively passing the long-running problem along to the new guy (E&E Daily, Jan. 9).


Underscoring some of Cox's potential challenges ahead, Bernhardt — whom he's already denounced as an Interior nominee — formerly represented Westlands as a lobbyist and lawyer.


The son of Chinese and Filipino immigrants, Cox holds a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Nevada, Reno, and an MBA from Southern Methodist University. He is married and the father of four children. He started the Central Valley NMTC Fund, which he describes as "a certified community development entity that uses the federal New Markets Tax Credit program to bring jobs" to the rural region. Cox also owns two nut-processing businesses.


"I'm a freshman member, so the business of Congress is all new to me," Cox told E&E, "but I have two decades of experience in the actual business world, and I know what it's like to be accountable for every dollar you're spending.


"You have to keep the lights on, you have to pay your workers," he added. "So it's extremely important to me that we are holding the Trump Administration accountable when they're wasting the taxpayer's money."


Since taking office last month, he has co-sponsored one pronounced environmental bill that would prohibit oil and gas exploration and leasing in areas of the outer continental shelf located off the coast of California.