A brash new leader takes over the Environmental Protection Agency, pushing sharp budget cuts and a massive rollback of environmental rules.
But before long, the administrator is mired in a wave of controversy and scandal.
That’s the story of EPA chief Scott Pruitt — but it is also the story of the late Anne Gorsuch Burford, who was the first EPA administrator under President Ronald Reagan. (She’s also mother to Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.)
The parallels between Pruitt and Gorsuch have been noted from the beginning — and they’re growing in ways Pruitt is unlikely to enjoy. Granted, crucial differences remain: The Gorsuch-era scandals were certainly more sweeping than anything we’ve seen so far. And although Gorsuch ultimately lost the support of Congress and the president who appointed her, Pruitt, for now, seems to mostly maintain both.
But Gorsuch and Pruitt are ideological outsiders who came to the agency looking to change it significantly, alienating career staff members and spurring controversy. Both were friends of industries angered by the EPA, and had opened doors to those industries once they were in office.
And as Pruitt’s controversies have mounted — most recently involving a surprisingly cheap D.C. condo rental from a lobbyist whose husband, also a lobbyist, works in part on energy issues — so, too, has attention to whether Pruitt’s term will end as Gorsuch’s did.
She offered her resignation less than two years after taking office. Reagan, who picked Gorsurch for her hard-line stance on deregulation, then took the agency in a more moderate direction, tapping William Ruckelshaus, a centrist Republican, to try to repair the damage.
“Gorsuch was gone within about two years of her appointment. Pruitt’s career is in the balance after, what, 12 to 13 months,” said Terry Yosie, a former chief executive of the World Environment Center, who directed the EPA’s Science Advisory Board under Gorsuch. “And I think there was a phase each one of them went through. Both became a distraction, then they became a lightning rod, then they became a liability.”
Yet observers of both the Reagan administration and the current one say there are several reasons to think Pruitt may not share Gorsuch’s fate.
One key difference is that in the early Reagan era, Democrats controlled the House and could use their investigative powers, including subpoenas, to pry information from Gorsuch and the EPA. They did so liberally.
“It played out over months of congressional hearings and testimony,” said Christopher Sellers, an environmental historian at Stony Brook University. “A lot of the agency came from Congress, really. She was held in contempt of Congress for not coming in and testifying. The White House only turned against her after all this congressional pressure building over a long while.”
Sellers sees this as very different from what’s happening now with Pruitt, in that the controversies have reached an apparent peak so suddenly, as a result of media exposés, rather than playing out over the long course of a congressional investigation. Pruitt has not faced such a challenge, in part because of the Republican control of Congress.
And indeed, the controversies at Gorsuch’s EPA stretched well beyond any one individual and led to multiple resignations in the end. There’s no charge of anything similarly extensive under Pruitt.
Then there’s another potential difference: Trump’s confidence. Reagan appears to have made a calculation that he needed to tack to the political center on the environment later in his first term, and so replaced Gorsuch. But Trump seems more inclined to double down on deregulation, said Bernard Goldstein, who headed the EPA’s Office of Research and Development under Ruckelshaus, and is now a professor emeritus of environmental health at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Reagan did exactly the same thing that Trump did in hiring Gorsuch,” Goldstein said. “But somewhere in the middle of his first term, Reagan was faced with the issue that the environment was a particular problem for him, and he had to decide what to do about it, and he decided [that] the way to go was to get rid of Gorsuch and to bring in a more moderate liberal person.”
And then, finally, there’s the matter of whether people across the country care. Those who remember the Gorsuch era also recall that the scandals were central to the news and seemed to really shape public opinion and concern about the environment. That, in turn, forced a response from the Reagan administration.
It’s far from clear that in the Trump era, with a far more fragmented media and a new story line every few hours, environment-related scandals hold our attention in the same way.
Gorsuch was a former state legislator from Colorado and a lawyer when she entered the Reagan administration. She came in to office as the head of a far younger and less complex Environmental Protection Agency — and quickly sought to slash agency budgets and to deregulate. In response, damaged morale at the agency led to a culture of leaking. (For one overview of the controversy that came to be known as “Sewergate,” see here.)
Soon Gorsuch got into a conflict with Congress over potential corruption involving the $1.6 billion Superfund program, and with the backing of the White House, resisted a subpoena to provide information — leading to a contempt citation and a massive legal showdown between government branches once the White House invoked “executive privilege.”
Congress, led by Democrats John Dingell of Michigan and Elliott Levitas of Georgia, fought back — and ultimately, as the saga dragged on, Gorsuch resigned, along with multiple EPA political appointees.
It’s important to note that most of the scandals did not affect Gorsuch personally. Rather, her defiance of Congress was probably her most controversial act — but the controversy focused far more on her subordinates and the Superfund program, in particular.
“The only person who went to prison was Rita Lavelle, in charge of the Superfund program, but 21 people in the agency had to leave with the same brouhaha,” Sellers said. “So we haven’t really seen anything like the scale of turmoil and scandal within the agency.”
Pruitt, also an outsider, comes from Oklahoma. One key difference, observers note, is that he’s more politically and legally experienced, having served as the attorney general of a state, and far more targeted in how he has approached dismantling key programs at the EPA.
And, indeed, Pruitt has reversed a large number of Obama-era regulations, although the ultimate fate of many of these moves will be determined in courts.
Meanwhile, Pruitt’s controversies are growing so numerous that they’re beginning to undermine that image of deftness.
First it was things such as installing a soundproof phone booth in his office and having a high level of personal security; then it was pricey first-class flights.
But the story took a turn when it was revealed that he had been renting a condo in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for just $50 a night, and only on nights when he stayed there — and that this deal was courtesy of Vicki and J. Steven Hart, a lobbyist couple. J. Steven Hart, who knew Pruitt from Oklahoma, works on energy issues as part of a wide portfolio of topics on which he lobbies. Vicki Hart is a health-care lobbyist.
Pruitt defended himself Tuesday, saying that “if you look at the lease, it’s very clear it’s market value. … You know, I was living out of a suitcase for the first four or five months I was here.”
His fate now remains to be seen, with the White House surely evaluating the balance between Pruitt’s deregulatory effectiveness on the one hand and his inability to stay out of the news on the other.
But already, among heads of the EPA, he seems to fit a category.
“If you think about Democrats and Republicans over the years, coming to EPA, the ones who were successful essentially worked with the career staff, and treated them as constituents, and brought them into their considerations and used their technical knowledge,” said Richard Morgenstern, a former career EPA employee under Gorsuch, who later served in political positions at the agency in both Democratic and Republican administrations, and is now a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.
“And the two people who have led the agency who have not done that are Gorsuch and Pruitt.”
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