Some top Republicans are starting to turn on Scott Pruitt. But it's not the EPA chief’s numerous ethical scandals causing their distaste. It’s his environmental regulation policies, especially in relation to business.
Pruitt is facing scrutiny for his use of a super-expensive security detail and his ties to lobbyists (including renting a condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist with business before the EPA). But those scandals aren’t concerning for most Republicans, who’ve brushed them aside during public hearings, including one before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. Just four Republicans in Congress have called for Pruitt to resign, compared to 170 Democrats.
What’s starting to attract some conservative scorn, however, is Pruitt’s slash-and-burn approach to environmental regulations, which some prominent GOPers claim undermine the same business-friendly policies that Pruitt’s EPA has sought to put forward. Two Republican leaders, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Richard Burr, have both recently criticized Pruitt over the effects of his deregulation plans. Both Burr and Grassley are staunch conservatives who voted to approve Pruitt as head of the EPA, and pressure from them carries a lot of weight.
In public hearings, Republicans have gone relatively easy on Pruitt, especially compared to Democrats. During his appearance before the Senate on Wednesday, for example, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the only Republican to bring up the scandals — and she gave Pruitt an opportunity to defend himself.
“Instead of seeing articles about efforts to return your agency to its core mission, I’m reading articles about your interactions with the industries that you regulate,” she said. “Do you have anything you would like to add in response?”
Pruitt stressed, as he has before, that he’s made mistakes, but he placed the blame on his staffers.
Outside of public hearings, some Republicans are beginning to grumble about Pruitt’s approach to policymaking. On Tuesday, Grassley threatened to call for Pruitt’s resignation if Pruitt didn’t scale back the EPA’s use of environmental waivers for small oil refineries. The waivers mean the refineries don’t have to blend their fuel with ethanol, a corn-based fuel that Grassley’s state of Iowa produces in huge quantities.
Burr also has pushed back on one of Pruitt’s policies — along with Republican Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, Todd Young, and Thom Tillis. They sent Pruitt’s office a letter last month urging him not to repeal an Obama-era trucking regulation aimed at limiting harmful emissions.
Pollution was not the top concern for either Grassley or Burr. Instead, they’re worried about “regulatory certainty,” a phrase Grassley used in his letter and one that Pruitt himself repeatedly uses in championing his policies. For those who don’t speak D.C.-ese, the idea is that businesses plan ahead based on existing regulations, and when those regulations are ripped up and thrown into uncertainty, planning is harder to do.
Businesses have begun to bring forward this criticism, too. Pruitt’s repeal of the Obama-era emissions standards have the auto industry concerned about the future of the regulations; the vigorous federal attack on emissions standards also could provoke a fight with California, which sets its own emissions standards. A lengthy legal battle with California wouldn’t be good for the car business.
In statement after statement, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox has answered questions from the press with this cut-and-paste response: “Administrator Pruitt is focused on advancing President Trump's agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship.” Reshaping a regulatory agency, it turns out, may not always provide the regulatory certainty Pruitt so prizes.
Cover image: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)