Two Responses to Anonymous EPA Staffer Diary in New York Magazine

New York magazine published an anonymous account of an Environmental Protection Agency staffer’s time during the Trump administration, which I’ve excerpted below:

My perspective goes up and down, but it’s been pretty despairing for the last two months. That signing of the executive order to look at rolling back different climate-change regulations — the one they did at the EPA with the coal miners on stage — that was really bad. And we all watched that together. Anytime there’s a big visit from a president or anyone like that to the EPA offices, it’s broadcast to the big conference rooms in all the offices. So we were invited to go and view this. I went, and it was pretty painful. There was a little booing. It was mostly silence. There were people silently giving the finger, but nobody was shouting obscenities. Maybe whispering them.

It’s only going to get worse, I think, as they put more political appointees at the regional headquarters. We’re just not optimistic at all. Some people say, “Oh, none of it’s really going to happen; the budget cuts aren’t going to be that bad; he’ll get impeached.” But I don’t think so. I think we’re in for at least four years of this. Plus, I’m in the prime of my career, and to waste four years of it is not something I’m interested in doing.

Kind of surprisingly, nobody has said, “I can’t take it,” and left. A lot of us are looking, but we want to stick it out as long as we can — in the hope that, I don’t know, something changes. However, what I’ve discovered in looking at new jobs is that our skills are not easily transferable outside of government agencies. The way you progress here is a little bit different. I really love my job, and I thought I would just stay. But now that I’ve started interviewing for stuff, it just feels like, if I don’t really sell myself and get out sooner rather than later, I might be stuck.

I’ve two responses to the above passage.

First, the staffer’s “despair” over the rollback of climate regulations demonstrates a stark unawareness of pretty much everything that legitimates the administrative state. The EPA exists because Congress created it. This act of creation is known as a congressional delegation, and its medium is the enabling statute. Simply put, EPA’s powers emanate solely from statutes passed by Congress, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Generally, these statutes do not specify every task and how it should be done; instead, the agency employs its discretion in implementing congressional directives, and the primary means of discretion are agency expertise and also the president’s policy preferences. This last point—about how the EPA’s implementation of its enabling statutes is supposed to reflect the incumbent president’s policy preferences—is the big one that the author misses. For better or for worse, presidential elections have become the primary means of imparting electoral legitimacy to administrative lawmaking. This is recognized by the Supreme Court’s deference doctrines, which allow an administration to justify shifts in policymaking based on the president’s political preferences.

With this background in mind, consider the EPA’s climate policies. As I’ve noted over and over, Obama ducked global warming when he was trying to get reelected in 2012, and then he pivoted to climate change as a legacy issue at the start of his second term, when he no longer faced any electoral accountability. By contrast, Trump was vociferous on the campaign trail in denigrating Obama’s climate policies. Indeed, Trump called global warming a hoax. And he was elected. Notably, Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election partly attributed Hilary Clinton’s loss in the rust belt to Obama’s unpopular climate polices.*

The upshot is that the cause of the staffer’s “despair” isn’t Scott Pruitt or Donald Trump, but is instead the will of the American electorate. When you put it that way—the correct way—the staffer’s despair comes off as self-righteous. He or she works for the American people, not the Sierra Club.

My second response relates to the staffer’s candid admission that, “our skills are not easily transferable outside of government agencies.” This hardly merits further comment, but at the risk of stating the obvious: what does it say about the average EPA staffer when they upfront admit that their skills are so limited? I’m reminded of the Michael Lewis book on the subprime meltdown, The Big Short. As I remember it, Lewis describes a three-tiered hierarchy of expertise in financial industry. The best and brightest are employed by investment banks; if you couldn’t find employment with the banks, you went to a ratings agency; and if you couldn’t cut it at a ratings agency, you became a regulator. I know skilled people at the EPA, so I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth highlighting the staffer’s frank avowal.

*Here’s what Lane said on a November 13, 2016 panel on Fox News Sunday:

LANE: Yes. Well, I — I have to say, I’ll take that as a friendly amendment, George. And I also think, just when we’re talking about factors here, I think environmentalism in a usual way worked against the Democratic Party this year. I did a little back of the envelope coalition about the most coal dependent states in terms of electricity generation in this country. There are 25 most dependent, 20 of them Trump carried. He carried Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, which are the three most coal dependent states in terms of electricity generation. That power plan to focus on global warming and stuff that he pushed with a relatively thin legal basis might have provided the small — a part, at least, of the small margin that contributed to his defeat.