Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt emerged from a Senate hearing on Tuesday with garlands of praise from Republicans but some unfinished business with skeptical Democrats.
Pruitt’s first appearance before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee since his confirmation was characterized as long overdue by ranking member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. Carper noted pointedly that Pruitt’s predecessor, Gina McCarthy, appeared before the committee six times in two years, while her predecessor Lisa Jackson appeared 14 times in six years. “You can do better on this front, and it’s important that you do,” Carper said before firing off a series of “yes or no” questions about EPA’s handling of the Clean Power Plan, Superfund and climate change. He asked Pruitt to avoid “the usual platitudes.”
When Carper pressed for a long-delayed EPA response to state petitions on cross-state pollution, Pruitt agreed to provide one within 30 days.
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Committee Republicans—speaking in anticipation of President Trump’s State of the Union address that celebrated deregulation—heaped praise on the dramatic changes in policy at an agency they said had “lost its way” under President Obama. EPA, “under the leadership of Administrator Pruitt, has been doing the hard work of protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the communities where our families live,” said panel Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “Administrator Pruitt has led the agency fairly. He has balanced the need to prioritize environmental protection with the desires of Americans to have thriving and economically sustainable communities.”
Democrats also zeroed in on ethics issues under Pruitt’s tenure at an agency that in the past year has been accused of misspending travel and personal security funds, discrediting the role of science, and intimidating career employees who appear not to be on board with the Trump administration agenda.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., after quoting comments unflattering to President Trump made in a 2016 radio interview, demanded that Pruitt explain a May 5, taxpayer-funded trip to Tulsa, Okla., in which he was reportedly planning to attend a Republican Party fundraiser. The only item on his calendar, Whitehouse noted, was lunch with a “Sam Wade,” CEO of the National Rural Water Association. “It seems a long way to go at taxpayer expense just to have lunch with one guy,” Whitehouse said, asking for the rest of Pruitt’s daily schedule, unredacted.
Pruitt, after consulting with staff, testified that he did not attend the Republican event that day, even though a prior consultation with an ethics officer said it was permissible. He said he would inquire about supplying Whitehouse his final, perhaps reconfigured, daily schedule for that day, “coordinating with this body.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., pressed Pruitt on why he had not responded to a Dec. 19 letter from Whitehouse and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., concerning a now-cancelled sole-source contract with a Republican-leaning research firm reported by The New York Times to be monitoring employee media comments on EPA policies and looking for members of the anti-Trump “resistance.” (A similar letter was sent to Pruitt by House Democrats from three committees on Jan. 5.) The firm was reported to have filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for material on EPA employees.
The firm, Definers Public Affairs, which Pruitt referred to as a “clipping service,” was reported by Mother Jones and other outlets to have a long history of doing opposition research for Republican candidates—including helping Pruitt with his confirmation, the Democratic senators wrote. “EPA’s contract with Definers risks further politicizing the agency and is another instance of EPA under your tenure becoming captured by the industry it regulates. At a minimum, it presents an appearance of impropriety to which you as administrator should never be a party.”
Pruitt said he wasn’t familiar with the press coverage, and that the $120,000 contract was $87,000 less expensive than the previous service. The contract had since been terminated, he said repeatedly. But the senators wanted to know how the contract was approved in the first place, to which Pruitt replied he would respond.
EPA did not respond to inquiries on Pruitt’s next steps by publication time.
The agency’s ethics issues are being tracked by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which had been waiting for Pruitt’s hearing for answers on a series of questions about Pruitt’s removal of climate change materials form the agency’s website, whistleblower protections for scientists and his regulatory budget caps.
On the contract with the clipping service, POGO General Counsel Scott Amey told Government Executive in an email that: “It's a travesty that EPA administrator Pruitt wasn't able to testify about the Definer's contract at today's hearing. The federal contracting system should never be used to steer taxpayer dollars to well-connected companies…Is it absurd to think that a company with no performance history is the only company that can provide "media monitoring" services. Someone needs to ensure that there was no pressure from the top to steer this contract to Definers, and if pressure was applied, they must be asked to leave the government because they have no idea what public service means.”