It’s time to test the proposition whether it’s possible to roll back the Obama regulatory agenda without using government employees as glorified personal assistants.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt long ago acquired the moniker “scandal-plagued” in the press. None of his offenses are criminally corrupt — no one has found cash stuffed in his freezer.
But the corner-cutting and grubbiness are unworthy of a high-level government official, who should be ever mindful that the money and people at his command aren’t truly his. Public service should mean that you serve the public, not that publicly funded resources and personnel serve you.
It was possible to look beyond the initial bout of Pruitt stories. Sure, he had a sweet $50-a-night condo deal from the wife of an energy lobbyist, but maybe he was simply using a convenient arrangement as he first settled into Washington?
Yes, there was the security detail extensive and expensive than prior EPA administrators, but isn’t Pruitt much more hated than his predecessors?
OK, he may have reportedly wanted to use the flashing lights of his motorcade to get to Le Diplomate faster, but who among us wouldn’t be tempted, if we could, to run traffic lights on the way to our favorite brasserie?
But as the stories continued to pile up, week after week, often astonishingly petty and memorable, it became impossible to conclude that Pruitt wasn’t behaving selfishly and indefensibly.
It pains me to say this as someone who was a fan of Pruitt’s when he was Oklahoma attorney general, who supports his work as EPA administrator, and who waived off the initial stories — I thought he could get beyond them with an apology and a pledge to straighten up and fly right (i.e., coach).
Pruitt seems to represent a fairly common phenomenon: A talented, ambitious person works in government for a long time, makes relatively little money, especially compared with the donors and lobbyists who want his ear, and tries to boost his lifestyle by exploiting every possible perk and angle he can find.
So, Pruitt took a not-strictly-necessary trip to Morocco, often flew first class, got his security detail to pick up his dry cleaning, and used an aide to hunt for an apartment for him and (oddly) to try to obtain an old mattress from the Trump International Hotel, among other tasks that aren’t strictly — or even loosely — related to the EPA’s mission or any other governmental purpose.
The latest is that Pruitt also used staff to help in his wide-ranging campaign to find work for his wife, and reached out to the CEO of Chick-fil-A about her getting a franchise. Reportedly, Pruitt wanted more income so the couple could maintain residences in Oklahoma and Washington. The fiscal strain is real, no doubt, but more lucrative work is wide open to Pruitt, although without the same fame and influence.
Pruitt’s defenders say the left is desperate, given his deregulatory successes, to take him out. True enough. Any ideologically conservative Trump EPA administrator is going to have a target on his or her back, which is all the more reason to be purer than Caesar’s wife rather than giving the opposition an unremitting diet of embarrassing revelations.
Every indication is that Pruitt’s questionable practices have created a poisonous internal atmosphere at his EPA, as his aides have been riven by disputes over his travel and spending, and many have departed. None of this is necessary to deregulation; indeed, it detracts from doing the work and, especially, from making the public case.
If Pruitt is a hero of the Trump agenda, he’s not the only one capable of carrying it out. As Charles de Gaulle supposedly said, the graveyards are full of indispensable men — especially if they’ve become political liabilities and have Senate-confirmed deputies to pick up the same policy priorities with fewer distractions and, presumably, a more cohesive team.
The Natural Resources Defense Council headlined its piece on Pruitt’s deputy administrator: “Who is Andrew Wheeler? (And Why You Should Be Afraid of Him).” The NRDC calls the former energy lobbyist and Sen. Jim Inhofe aide “Scott Pruitt’s ideological twin.”
He should take up Pruitt’s baton, and forswear his controversies.