Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, testifies before the Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment at the Rayburn House Office Building on 26 April 2018, in Washington. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post

By by Jennifer Liss Ohayon, Leif Fredrickson, and Christopher Sellers
22 May 2018

(The Washington Post) – So many different scandals have engulfed Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that multiple publications have created trackers to help readers sort them out. Pruitt’s excessive spending and his fraternization with lobbyists and controversial figures may eventually force him to step down. But the focus on his flawed personal ethics risks obscuring his broader mission: the dismantling of his own agency.

That effort relies on tactics deployed by two previous Republican presidents — Ronald Reagan, who staged a frontal assault on the EPA early in his presidency, and George W. Bush, who worked to undermine the science underpinning the EPA’s actions — and constitutes an all-out war on the agency. Yet it is not clear whether Pruitt’s departure would alter this trajectory, or whether the Trump administration will continue down this path, inflicting irreparable damage on one of our most important governmental agencies.

Back in 1980, Reagan galloped into office with a campaign that, like Trump’s, decried government “overreach.” Once in office, Reagan selected an EPA head hostile to the agency’s initiatives: Anne Gorsuch (mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch). As a corporate lawyer and Colorado lawmaker, Gorsuch had opposed the Clean Air Act, water quality rules and hazardous waste protections. Other EPA appointees came from regulated industries and companies, including Exxon and Aerojet.

Once in office, Gorsuch shrank EPA staff levels by 21 percent between 1981 and 1983, slashed the agency’s budget and dissolved its Office of Enforcement. In the first year of the new administration, civil enforcement cases plummeted by about 75 percent.

Gorsuch’s assault on the EPA was ultimately cut short. EPA career staff gathered in bars to plot strategies of resistance and unionized themselves to promote job security and scientific integrity. Leaks from the agency and subsequent headlines led the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to launch investigations. Major corruption and misconduct were uncovered in the Superfund cleanup program, with its head, Rita Lavelle (plucked from Aerojet), jailed for perjury.

When Gorsuch shrugged off a congressional subpoena, 55 House Republicans joined Democrats to charge her with contempt. The White House turned against her, driving Gorsuch and a score of other political appointees out. Reagan then appointed William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator and a strong advocate of its mission, to lead the agency. Ruckelshaus helped revitalize staff morale and bipartisan support for the EPA.

After Gorsuch’s ouster, the Republican siege of the EPA abated for 17 years. In fact, Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, appointed the “first professional environmentalist,” William Reilly, to lead the EPA and signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, acknowledging the human role in climate disruption. But Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, resumed the charge, in a more sophisticated and less overtly confrontational manner than Reagan. […]

These past attacks have done damage to our environment and climate. But the EPA survived and has even been able to adapt its regulations to new science, despite ongoing industry pressure and relatively stagnant budgets. It now faces a historically unparalleled threat.

Trump and Pruitt have combined the overt attacks pioneered by Reagan and Gorsuch to the more sophisticated Bush strategy of corroding the science driving the EPA’s activities.

Like Reagan’s team, Trump’s top EPA appointees, Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, built their careers fighting the EPA, as Oklahoma’s attorney general and a coal company lawyer, respectively. Lower-level appointments are exemplified by Nancy Beck, who is leveraging years of experience as an industry lobbyist to rewrite chemical safety rules. [more]

Would firing Scott Pruitt save the EPA?

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