A partisan stalemate in the Senate is preventing the Environmental Protection Agency’s from filling its leadership team with political appointees.
The agency is currently operating with only one Senate-confirmed appointee: Administrator Scott Pruitt. That confirmation pace lags behind all of President Trump’s other agencies aside from the Labor Department, which is operating in a similar bare-bones fashion.
Democrats vow to continue to block pending nominations, claiming the agency is refusing to respond to their oversight inquires. They charge that the Trump administration and the Republican-led Senate have created the impasse by nominating industry shills opposed to commonly accepted environmental standards.
Whoever is to blame, former EPA officials from both parties say the agency will struggle to issue new regulations unless the Senate signs off on nominees for key positions.
The administration moved slowly to submit nominations, and a Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently expressed concern over a nomination for the agency’s high-profile air office, prompting committee chair John Barrasso to postpone a vote on four EPA nominees.
But Barrasso and other committee Republicans are placing the blame squarely on Democrats.
“The Democrats have been very obstructive in terms of trying to get the president’s nominees in place across the board,” Barrasso said after the postponement of the committee vote, adding that it would likely take place this week.
The Senate, meanwhile, has approved nine Commerce Department nominees, 16 Defense Department nominees, and three Agriculture Department nominees.
Even with its skeletal staff, the EPA has moved ahead with regulatory rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration initiative to scale back carbon-dioxide emissions; the Clean Water Rule, a regulation that governs small bodies of water; and other hallmarks of the previous administration’s environmental agenda.
Pruitt and his unconfirmed political appointees face a far more daunting challenge, however, in crafting policies to come up with replacements for those rules in the absence of like-minded appointees to head EPA offices, according to past agency officials.
“Regardless of how you think of the nominations, the reality is the agency doesn’t work effectively without confirmed political appointees providing direction on the biggest issues,” said Bob Sussman, the cochair of President Obama’s EPA transition team and a top official during his administration. “The administrator’s office is staffed up, but it’s difficult to get into the weeds and work complex issues when you’re not cheek-by-jowl with the program people doing the work.”
Pruitt has said he may not issue a new Clean Power Plan, but he’s signaling that the agency is obligated to rewrite a new water rule, albeit one that comports with the law. Pruitt litigated on both rules as Oklahoma attorney general.
“The acting administrators are placeholders, and it’s not their task to be your champion,” said Rick Otis, a high-ranking official in President George W. Bush’s EPA. “It takes a certain sense of common shared vision on what you want in order to move new policy forward.”
Democrats and allied public health and environmental groups say the EPA nominations are industry activists ill-suited for public office. The White House recently tapped Bill Wehrum, a longtime Washington lawyer, to be the air office nominee, and Michael Dourson, who has conducted research on behalf of chemical groups, as assistant administrator at the chemical-safety office.
A broad range of health and environment groups share the Democrats’ concerns. Dourson, for example, has conducted research for DuPont, Koch Industries, and other chemical producers, often recommending chemical-exposure levels that far exceed safety standards set in place by previous state and federal authorities. More than 100 public health and environmental organizations have opposed Dourson’s nomination.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a Republican on the EPW committee and a staunch biofuel supporter, held up the nomination of Wehrum over concerns about renewable fuel standards. Wehrum represented the oil industry against biofuel groups in RFS litigation. The EPA requires petroleum producers and importers to blend annually-increasing levels of ethanol and advanced biofuel, but the most recent agency proposal undercuts current blending requirements for different advanced biofuel.
That sparked a backlash from Ernst and other senators. A “no” from Ernst would have scotched the nomination.
Pruitt tried to assure Ernst and Senate Republicans from corn states that the blending requirements would not be reduced further. If his gesture satisfies Ernst and she backs Wehrum, all the EPA nominees are likely to pass through the committee on a party-line vote.
Committee Democrats Sheldon Whitehouse and Jeff Merkley have also threatened to block the nomination of Susan Bodine, the nominee for the enforcement office who passed through committee in July on a partisan vote, although some Democrats offered oral support. Meanwhile, Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican and former EPW chairman, is blocking a Democratic nomination to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission because of Democratic obstruction of EPA nominees.
EPW ranking member Thomas Carper insists his party’s opposition is more about transparency than policy preferences. A spokeswoman for Carper said the EPA has responded adequately to only nine of the 26 oversight requests submitted by panel Democrats, adding that the agency hasn’t responded adequately to pollutant and chemical inquiries dating back to March and April. The EPA contests those figures.
“EPA has been more responsive than [it was during] the Obama administration, as we’ve responded to 557 of the 661 letters received from Congress, including 27 of the 35 inquires received from Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said.
Barrasso concurs, dismissing the transparency concerns as a pretext.
“Claiming the EPA is not responsive as an excuse for not confirming important nominees does not pass the smell test,” he said.