Last week, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, seemed to awaken from his stupor and begin serious investigation into the reported financial abuses, retaliation and excessive staff raises at the Environmental Protection Agency. Administrator Scott Pruitt is in hot water for everything from a $43,000 soundproof booth to a rental agreement with a lobbyist’s wife. After Democrats dropped a critical whistleblower witness into its lap, the GOP majority demanded a raft of documents and interviews with a long list of EPA officials. Gowdy also sent a letter complaining about Pruitt’s nonresponsiveness to a previous request dating back to February 20.
I’m baffled as to why Gowdy hasn’t issued subpoenas — as he did with great regularity during his Benghazi investigation. As Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, tweeted: “During the entire Trump Administration, this Committee has not issued a single subpoena — not one — to any federal agency or federal official. And that’s not because we have suddenly had a massive increase in transparency and cooperation. Just the opposite.” It’s almost as though Gowdy talks a good game, but doesn’t put any real pressure on the White House. Wednesday evening, Cummings told me, “It’s great that someone over there is finally going to start looking into this, but my goodness, what does it take to get their attention? Why haven’t they been investigating this for months?”
The White House on Wednesday — perhaps seeking a more urgent resolution that what can be expected from Gowdy — dispatched Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to dig into just one of many allegations against Pruitt: the soundproof booth.
Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, told me, “It’s hard to know for certain exactly what precipitated OMB’s involvement, but one possibility is that the White House is sending Pruitt a message that the end is near.” He explained, “OMB’s publicly announcing its review of EPA would seem to support that hypothesis because OMB usually works quietly behind the scenes. I have trouble imagining a scenario in which Pruitt keeps his job, with concurrent inquiries by the inspector general, the House, the Senate, and now OMB.”
Mulvaney seems to be taking his assignment seriously. The Hill reports:
OMB Director Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee about the plans to probe the booth at a Wednesday hearing of the committee’s subpanel that oversees the OMB. Mulvaney said that since the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled Monday that the spending on the booth was a violation of the Antideficiency Act, OMB will investigate.
“We take the Antideficiency statute very, very seriously. And if they’ve been broken, we’ll follow the rules,” he told Rep. Mike Quigley (Ill.), the subpanel’s top Democrat. “We will enforce the law, and we’ll do so in a transparent fashion, Mr. Quigley. I’m not interested in covering for anybody else.”
Mulvaney said his office either had just started its investigation into the matter or will start it soon. . . .
Mulvaney told lawmakers that the violation could possibly result in a criminal conviction, but it was not likely. “Technically it’s a criminal law. I don’t think anybody has ever been charged criminally with a violation of the Antideficiency statute. But we would talk to the lawyers and figure out what the appropriate statutory steps are that we are supposed to take,” he said.
“Again, we’re going to be completely aboveboard on this one. I’m not any happier about it than you are,” Mulvaney told Quigley.
It is odd that the White House, which has no qualms about firing a slew of aides and Cabinet officials, hasn’t by now simply fired Pruitt. Yes, there is a backlog of nominations, but an acting EPA administrator can hold down the fort until someone is confirmed. Maybe Pruitt’s popularity with Trump’s base has made it hard for the White House to push Pruitt out. Right-wing activists have done such a good job defending the anti-regulatory maven that Trump (who is always scared about offending his base) may feel that firing Pruitt would be seen as a sign of weakness. Better to dispatch Mulvaney, who will either scare Pruitt into resigning or assure everyone (including the Trump base) that Trump has no choice but to dump Pruitt.
This EPA’s toxic-waste dump of ethical malfeasance never should have been allowed to go on this long. A president promising to “drain the swamp” should have been quick on the trigger to dump Pruitt. Of course, that promise was a bunch of hooey coming from a president still receiving foreign emoluments and who is up to his eyeballs in conflicts of interest. Mulvaney, nicknamed “Mick the Knife” from his anti-spending habits going back to his time in the House, could do the country, the president and his former colleagues (facing reelection this year) a world of good by swiftly confirming Pruitt’s wrongdoing and recommending he be fired.