Republicans Quietly Back Measures to Confront Pruitt’s Ethics Scandals

Lawmakers are using language in spending bills to take aim at the EPA chief’s alleged behavior.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on May 16.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Brian Dabbs
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Brian Dabbs
June 14, 2018, 8 p.m.

Republicans in Congress say it’s President Trump’s call to send scandal-ridden Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt packing. But that’s not keeping them from quietly signing off on legislation to show their distaste.

Senate appropriators unanimously backed language Thursday to bar the EPA from using fiscal 2019 funds to violate basic ethics regulations.

And last week, House Republican appropriators joined Democrats to approve language that prohibits Pruitt from spending more than $50 on fountain pens.

The Senate language may appear to be window dressing and the House language could be considered low-hanging fruit. Those measures, however, are the boldest and most substantive Republican steps to date in the seemingly neverending Pruitt saga.

“The significance is that we were able to agree on good language,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee subpanel that has jurisdiction over the EPA and Interior Department. The ethics language is included in a report that accompanies the fiscal 2019 EPA and Interior bill, which passed out of committee Thursday.

The provisions in both chambers land atop growing calls from key Republican allies for his ouster, and conservative personality Laura Ingraham upbraided Pruitt on her radio program Wednesday.

“I’ve talked to top conservatives about this, just last night—top, top people. He’s hurting the president,” she said. “It’s death by a thousand cuts. And we just don’t need it. You gotta have good judgement.”

The laundry list of ethical-misconduct allegations is striking. The Washington Post most recently broke a story on Pruitt’s enlistment of EPA staffers to land his wife a job at the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group. That report follows months of revelations related to Pruitt’s first-class travel, outsize security detail, and coziness with lobbyists, among many other allegations.

Pruitt’s chief patron on Capitol Hill, Sen. Jim Inhofe, flirted with calling for the former Oklahoma attorney general’s resignation Wednesday on Ingraham’s radio program.

“I’m afraid my good friend Scott Pruitt has done some things that really surprise me,” Inhofe told Ingraham. “I see these things. They upset me as much as they upset you. And I think something needs to happen to change that. One of those alternatives would be for him to leave that job.”

Inhofe said Andrew Wheeler, the recently confirmed EPA deputy administrator with long ties to Capitol Hill, could be a “good swap” for Pruitt. Inhofe spokeswoman Leacy Burke said he aims to meet with Pruitt by Monday, confirming an Axios report.

Some ethics experts say the Senate appropriations language ratchets up pressure on Pruitt.

“It reinforces the importance of the ethics rules for Scott Pruitt and the EPA and puts Scott Pruitt on notice that Congress is watching, but it also does make enforcement of the ethics rules somewhat easier,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the left-leaning watchdog group Public Citizen.

“By having it as an appropriations rider, that means it really narrows the discretion of the Department of Justice when it comes to enforcing it … the discretion gets removed from the Department of Justice. In that sense this is a rather significant rider,” he added.

The Senate language applies to the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch, the portion of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations that tackles gifts, conflicts of interest, and moonlighting.

“I don’t care if you are a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent or a Communist, if you serve in government and you intentionally waste taxpayer money, you need to be punished, including and not limited to being fired,” Senate Appropriations member John Kennedy said. “This appears to be not a mistake, but a pattern of intentional conduct.”

Kennedy cautioned that he isn’t calling for Pruitt’s sacking. That decision falls to the president, Kennedy said, echoing comments from Sen. Joni Ernst, who recently called Pruitt “as swampy as you get.”

“My step is done,” Ernst said this week. “I gave advice and consent because I thought that Administrator Pruitt would do the right thing. Now it’s up to the president to rectify the situation.”

Ernst and fellow Iowan Sen. Chuck Grassley have criticized Pruitt for exempting some oil refiners from compliance with the Renewable Fuel Standard, an ethanol-blending mandate that is widely applauded in corn states.

Democrats, to be sure, are out front in confronting Pruitt. Rep. Marcy Kaptur led the House language on the fountain pens, following reports that Pruitt spent more than $1,500 on a dozen pens.

And Tom Udall, Murkowski’s Democratic counterpart on the EPA appropriations subpanel, spearheaded the ethics language in the Senate bill. “I’m appalled at the number of scandals piling up, especially at the EPA,” Udall said during Thursday’s markup. “I think it’s just common sense to make it clear in a spending bill that individuals entrusted with spending taxpayer dollars must maintain a basic level of ethical behavior.”

The bipartisan agreement on the EPA and Interior spending legislation marked the first such achievement in several Congresses. Udall said he would have pushed harder to include language in the actual bill text, but the markup showcased a problem for Democrats related to Pruitt: a threat of torpedoing bipartisan compromise.

Sen. Sherrod Brown drafted an amendment to call for Pruitt’s resignation in the lead-up to the farm-bill markup Wednesday. Brown ultimately chose to withhold his amendment, and the bill passed committee 20-1.

The Ohio Democrat, who is up this year for reelection in a key battleground, later downplayed Republican interest in taking on Pruitt.

“[The amendment] was not going to pass, so we did some other things,” Brown said. “No matter how many members of Congress call for Pruitt’s resignation, he’s only going to resign if Trump and he want him to. [Republican leadership] doesn’t stand up to [Trump] on anything. Why would they stand up to him on Scott Pruitt?”

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