Scott Pruitt’s 16-month tenure as EPA administrator turned out to be a mixed bag. When President-elect Trump nominated Pruitt, he thought he was getting exactly what he wanted: an aggressive outsider; an able public advocate; and, most importantly, someone who as Oklahoma’s attorney general had shown that he was just as opposed to Obama’s climate agenda and regulatory onslaught as was Trump.
Pruitt turned out to be suitably aggressive and an energetic promoter of Trump’s policies. Most notably, he provided stalwart support inside the administration and in public of the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate treaty. But he also turned out not to be a hands-on administrator. Repeals of major rules were regularly announced, but the legal paperwork often turned out to be sloppy and the process of moving rulemakings forward often seemed stuck in neutral.
Pruitt came to the job without any experience of working inside the EPA or of managing a large organization. What he needed was a competent deputy administrator who had worked at EPA and knew how it operated and where the roadblocks were. That person was Andrew Wheeler, but the president’s dysfunctional personnel process didn’t manage to nominate Wheeler until October 2017 and the Senate didn’t confirm him until April.
By the time Wheeler was sworn in, Pruitt was under assault for ethical lapses by environmental pressure groups and the mainstream media. The charges against him were mostly small potatoes, some were ridiculous, and even the serious ones were hardly unusual. One of the most serious was that he rented a bedroom in a condo on a $50 nightly basis from a K Street power couple. It does look improper, but it had been cleared by EPA’s ethics counsel. Compare the endless recycling of this story to the big news in 2010 that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had lived rent-free for nine months in a $3.5 million house owned by a Wall Street executive. But the story of Geithner’s special deal (which also had been cleared by his agency’s ethics counsel) disappeared in a couple days.
Regardless of the magnitude of the offenses, Pruitt did a poor job defending himself. Time and again, he appeared arrogant and tone deaf. And he should have been prepared for the unrelenting attacks, but was not. In particular, in taking on the EPA bureaucracy, Pruitt seemed unaware of the magnitude of the challenge. He would have done well to study what happened to the only previous administrator who tried. Anne Gorsuch Burford was an outsider picked by President Reagan in 1981 to reform what was already an out-of-control bureaucracy. She was run out of town in 1983.
Andrew Wheeler is now acting administrator and may be nominated after the election to be administrator. I have known and occasionally worked with Wheeler for two decades and can attest to his commitment to and competence in getting the job done. It is a high recommendation that he has worked in his career for two great Americans — for Senator James M. Inhofe on the staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and for Bob Murray of Murray Energy as a lobbyist.
There is no doubt that Wheeler will continue to implement the deregulatory agenda. That’s because it’s President Trump’s agenda, which is based on a coherent set of campaign promises. The Waters of the United States Rule will be replaced with something that is constitutional. The so-called Clean Power Plan will be replaced with something that is legal. And so on.
On whether Wheeler succeeds in his second main charge — reforming the worst aspects of the agency in terms of mismanagement, lack of accountability, and freelance regulating far beyond what Congress has authorized — history says no (see Pruitt and Burford). On the other hand, Pruitt hired an expert in management and re-organization from Arizona state government, Henry Darwin, as chief operating officer. Darwin has now been named acting deputy administrator.
To reform one of the swampiest bureaucracies is a challenge. As a former official who served under Carol Browner in the Clinton EPA said to me at the height of the Pruitt furor, “We learned early on that you don’t ever want to cross senior EPA career staff.” To make progress, Wheeler and Darwin are going to need help from Congress. The signs are not good. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney requested a 31 percent cut in EPA’s budget for FY 2017. The Republican Congress pulled that back to 6 percent.
It’s not going to be possible to reform EPA’s recalcitrant bureaucracy without deep staff cuts. Much of the agency’s work, especially in terms of monitoring and enforcement, has been turned over to state agencies. Having lots of spare regulators with time on their hands and mischief on their minds will always lead to freelancing and over-regulation.
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