Pruitt Is Gone, But His Policies To Stay At EPA

Scott Pruitt has been pushed out as head of the EPA. In executive branch oustings like this, though, policy matters far more than personality.


The left often vilifies figureheads in the Trump administration like Jeff Sessions, Betsy Devos, and Pruitt. This is certainly justified, as these people believe government should act in ways that often hurt people—and they’re now in positions of power and can damage the bureaucratic implementation of important public programs. However, the left shouldn’t think the world is a better place after someone like Pruitt leaves his post. Alas, with virtually the same Republican control of power since the 2016 election, someone with the same policy views will likely take his place.

What kind of policy changes did Pruitt begin to oversee? Here are the highlights. Pruitt began the years-long process of rescinding the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s last-chance effort to reduce emissions from the electricity sector (although the Supreme Court had previously stalled the Plan to allow litigation to take its course). Pruitt rolled back vehicle emission standards. He nearly finished re-writing the Clean Water Rule to allow polluters freer reign. He collected far fewer fines from polluters overall. He rid EPA websites of the terms “climate change” and “global warming”. He replaced academic EPA science advisors with industry scientists. Based on current Senate politics, it is likely that Pruitt’s replacement will continue this anti-science, pro-industry deregulation.

Let’s recap how Pruitt ended up as EPA administrator, to see if there is any chance that someone who thinks government should regulate pollution in any non-zero way will return as the next head before 2020. Trump was elected in 2016, along with a 52-48 Republican seat advantage in Congress. Pruitt was confirmed 52-46 in February 2017. Crucially, one Republican (Susan Collins, ME) voted against him and one didn’t vote (John McCain, AZ). Crushingly, two Democrats voted for Pruitt: Joe Manchin III of West Virginia (coal country) and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (oil and gas country)—two states notorious for perennially electing senators who are anti-climate policy, even when they’re Democrats.

The only bit of (possibly imaginary) good news for the nomination of the next EPA head is that two things are different today in the relevant political balance of power since February 2017. First, one Senate seat flipped, so Republicans now have just a 51-49 advantage. This happened when Jeff Sessions’ Alabama Senate seat had to be filled via special election in 2017 (after the Pruitt confirmation vote), and in dramatic fashion, Democrat Doug Jones beat *alleged* child molester Roy Moore. This one seat flipping does matter, as Sessions’ fill-in did cast a vote in favor of Pruitt. And Jones, relative to his red-state Dem allies, is pro-climate. Knocking the previous 52 Pruitt-confirmation votes down to 51, this means that still two other votes against a Pruitt type would have to be found (since Mike Pence can break a 50-50 tie).

Second, we’re far closer to the 2018 midterm elections, when a third of the Senate is up for re-election. This means that the two Dems and any “moderate” Republicans who voted for Pruitt could possibly think about voting differently next time (assuming an upcoming nominee with similar views as Pruitt). Given grassroots liberal action and Democratic victories in ad hoc special elections since 2016, it’s possible Manchin III (WV) and Heitkamp (ND) would have to think twice about voting for a Pruitt type. But given their states (and that their respective primaries—for which they’d have to think about looking more liberal—already happened), that seems unlikely. The most “moderate” Republican senator who voted for Pruitt the first time is Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—but they love their drilling up there, so she seems locked in. Of the three senators who’ve announced they’re not seeking re-election in 2018, two of them (Jeff Flake, AZ and Bob Corker, TN) have butted heads with Trump so could make an anti-Trump vote on a nomination, but they’re also pretty pro-fossil fuels and anti-environmental regulation, so that also seems unlikely.

For now, EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler is filling in for Pruitt. Wheeler has virtually the same views as Pruitt but more Washington experience, so he may actually be more effective at the deregulatory effort before the next administrator is confirmed.

The bottom line here is that who wins elections determines the policies that the executive branch implements. The president sets the agenda and nominates agency heads, and the Senate must confirm them. Unless that power dynamic changes between presidential elections, then the personality in charge of the specific agency probably doesn’t mean much for the policy impact—until the next election. It is therefore extra crucial that climate activists work to elect the right people during primary and general election cycles, when they have the chance to affect both the content of bills and the agency heads that will be confirmed.

Sam Zacher is a PhD student in political science at Yale University studying how interest groups can improve their strategies for success on issues like climate change. He tweets @samzacher

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