After months of controversy and more than a dozen investigations into a range of scandals not seen since the Teapot Dome affair, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned Thursday. His corruption was astounding — from his order of a $43,000 soundproof booth to first-class air travel at taxpayers’ expense to a $50-a-night condo rental from a lobbyist’s spouse to his use of aides to run errands on government time to his pursuit of a cushy job for his wife, there seemed to be no item that was too small to snatch and no item too big to turn down. In any other administration, he would have been gone months ago.
Three aspects of this tawdry episode deserve emphasis. First, congressional oversight was slight, to say the least. Only when Democrats on the House Oversight Committee began meeting with whistleblowers did the Republican majority kick into high gear. Even then, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) used letters rather than subpoenas to request information. As a result, the EPA’s responses were often incomplete and imprecise. Pruitt’s fall is not because Congress did its job. It allowed the White House to stall well past the point any other administration would have been allowed to.
Second, the investigations should not end with his departure. The extent to which he ripped off taxpayers must be determined, and anyone who assisted in his escapades must be fired. In addition, it is not clear whether any criminal laws were broken or if the government has the ability to force Pruitt to reimburse taxpayers. Republicans will certainly do their best to sweep this under the rug; Democrats should insist taxpayers be repaid.
Third, Pruitt was simply following the lead of the president who has violated about every financial norm his predecessors upheld. President Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns. He has not divested himself of ongoing businesses which he continues to profit from. He continues to receive foreign emoluments, although multiple lawsuits seek to end what may be a constitutional violation. And the president has employed relatives who have their own conflicts, such as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, giving foreign governments the impression that they could use his financial situation to advance their interests with the U.S. government.
The most dishonest and corrupt administration in about a century is only marginally improved by the departure of Pruitt. Only with serious oversight (which likely will come only from a Democratic majority in one or both houses) can we hope to fumigate the administration. In the meantime, Congress needs to beef up ethics reporting and enforcement, make disclosure of the president’s tax returns mandatory and stiffen penalties for violations of ethics rules. Only then will we restore a modicum of normalcy to the government, which has come to resemble a corrupt banana republic.