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Scott Pruitt is dismantling EPA in secret for the same reason the GOP health care bill was secret

Today’s GOP agenda is unpopular and indefensible.

Trump and Pruitt.
“So, mum’s the word, then?”
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The New York Times had a big story on Friday about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s propensity to operate in secret. It offers a detailed and damning review of the evidence, but it stops short of drawing the broader conclusion: namely, that the approach of serving industry under cover of secrecy is not idiosyncratic to Pruitt, nor is it distinctively Trumpian. Rather, it is the standard approach of today’s GOP, as reflected in such recent initiatives as the failed health care bill. It is, in fact, the only approach possible to advance an agenda that is unpopular and intellectually indefensible.

Before painting that bigger picture, though, let’s look more closely at Pruitt’s brief but memorable stint at the EPA so far.

Pruitt is radically remaking the EPA, mostly in secret

Things got off to an inauspicious start in February, when a story at E&E revealed that Pruitt was requesting a full-time, around-the-clock security detail — not the first act of a man confident in his agenda.

In May, the New Republic’s Emily Atkin, noting Pruitt’s refusal to meet with media or make his schedule public, asked, “What is Scott Pruitt hiding?” Another story in May found that political leadership at the EPA had begun “occasionally inserting new data and other information into public statements without final review from career policy specialists,” data and information officials inside EPA describe as “misleading and incompatible with extensive agency research.” Another covered Pruitt firing several scientists from the agency’s science review board, planning to replace them with people more sympathetic to industry.

An AP story in June uncovered an email record showing that Pruitt coordinated tightly with fossil fuel groups as attorney general in Oklahoma. E&E revealed that Pruitt’s calendar in his early weeks at EPA was filled with meetings with energy executives (though he met with no environmentalists).

A story in July showed that Pruitt is rolling back regulations “without the input of the 15,000 career employees at the agency he heads.” Instead, the Times’s Coral Davenport writes, “Pruitt has outsourced crucial work to a network of lawyers, lobbyists and other allies, especially Republican state attorneys general.” Another noted that he had traveled back home to Oklahoma — where he hopes to run for Senate — 10 times in his first three months, huddling with industry allies from his AG days.

Also in July, Rolling Stone ran a long expose by Jeff Goodell that focused on, among other things, Pruitt’s secrecy.

Except for his victory lap after Paris, he mostly avoids mainstream media. (Pruitt's office refused numerous requests to interview him for this story.) And despite his often-professed belief in "the rule of law," he has steadfastly resisted and evaded Freedom of Information Act requests for e-mail records and other public documents. He's so good at operating in the shadows, in fact, that he was recently given the Golden Padlock Award by investigative journalists, which recognizes the most secretive publicly funded person or agency in the United States.

Here’s the Golden Padlock Award, which a group of investigative reporters and editors gave to Pruitt for “steadfastly refusing to provide emails in the public interest and removing information from public websites about key environmental programs.”

And now, the New York Times pulls it together:

[Pruitt] has terminated a decades-long practice of publicly posting his appointments calendar and that of all the top agency aides, and he has evaded oversight questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to the Democratic senators who posed the questions.

His aides recently asked career employees to make major changes in a rule regulating water quality in the United States — without any records of the changes they were being ordered to make. And the E.P.A. under Mr. Pruitt has moved to curb certain public information, shutting down data collection of emissions from oil and gas companies, and taking down more than 1,900 agency webpages on topics like climate change, according to a tally by the Environmental Defense Fund, which did a Freedom of Information request on these terminated pages.

The picture that emerges from all this is pretty clear: Pruitt is avoiding oversight, avoiding environmentalists, avoiding agency staff, and avoiding mainstream media. He is taking steps to corrupt agency science and science communication and loosen regulatory burdens on fossil fuels, in close consultation with industry groups and right-wing media, with as little public scrutiny as possible.

What’s notable, aside from the grotesque distortion of the agency’s mission, is how well Pruitt represents the state of today’s GOP.

And first, let’s get this out of the way: Pruitt is a creature of the GOP, not any kind of Trump-era anomaly. He has spent his entire career enmeshed in right-wing groups like the Republican Attorneys General Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council. He is steeped in conservative media, a long-time favorite of right-wing sites like Breitbart.

He is of the movement, and the culmination of the GOP’s current philosophy toward EPA, which can only be described as thoroughgoing nihilism. The right views EPA as a tool of the Democrats and it wants to burn it down. Trump has merely given Pruitt the green light.

Pruitt’s approach reflects two larger trends on the right.

An agenda that no one likes is better kept hidden

First, Pruitt operates in secrecy — by history, by habit, by instinct, and by necessity — because what he’s doing has no policy justification and very little public support, like most of the contemporary GOP agenda.

There used to be some detail in conservative arguments about environmental regulations, some nuance about which ones did and didn’t operate effectively, or pass cost-benefit, or conform to proper interpretations of statute.

But Pruitt is wielding a scythe, not a scalpel. He is dismantling rules, customs, practices, and the budget at his agency without discernment. There is no conceivable intellectual or policy argument to make on behalf of that kind of nihilism. There’s no evidence that Obama-era rules had any negative effects on the economy or overall employment, much less that every single one did. If there were any evidence, Pruitt’s every statement to the press or the public wouldn’t be packed with gobbledygook.

So why would Pruitt meet with environmentalists or conservationists or public health groups? There’s nothing to say, no policy merits to discuss, no real argument to have. His side won, so his guys, the fossil guys, get what they want. It’s not policy, it’s dominance.

And the public doesn’t support the strategy either. Large majorities in America support regulations to limit pollution (and, specifically, regulations to limit CO2). Even most Republicans support regulating greenhouse gases. Moves to weaken environmental regulations are wildly unpopular outside of the hardcore right-wing base.

So why engage with the public? Why talk with the mainstream media? Anything that draws public attention to what’s going on will only hurt Pruitt politically. He’s not going to be able to con the broad public into supporting more polluted waterways. Even a smooth talker couldn’t, and Pruitt is ... not that.

In sum, Pruitt is keeping his agenda as hidden as possible for the very same reasons Republicans in Congress tried to keep their recent health care bill a secret: Virtually no one likes it and there’s not a coherent policy case to be made for it.

Interestingly, in the case of the health care bill, GOP radicalism went so far that not even the health care industries and constituencies that fought against Obamacare supported it. Given the chance to enact a longtime policy priority, the GOP went too far and fell on its face. We’re seeing some of that crop up around Pruitt as well.

The base will always push too far

The business community and the GOP used to be in rough alignment, but that alignment has been coming out of skew more and more in recent years, for the simple reason that radicalism (fueled by right-wing media) has taken over the party and pushed it to extremes that end up blowing up in its face. One of the truisms of American politics is that, as hapless as the Democrats are, Republicans will eventually overreach and step on a rake.

It happened with the health care bill. And it’s happening around environmental policy as well.

The first example, which remains a source of tension between Pruitt and the base, is EPA’s endangerment finding on carbon dioxide, a compilation of scientific evidence showing that carbon dioxide threatens public health. Completed under Obama, it set in motion EPA’s regulations on greenhouse gases.

Industry (except for some of the more extreme coal elements), does not want Pruitt to go after the endangerment finding. It would be a very loud and public fight over basic climate science, which, outside of the fever swamps, is generally seen as a losing battle for the right. Plus, from industry’s perspective, it’s a culture-war distraction. Most of the regs industry cares about can be weakened or delayed with the endangerment finding in place; they’d rather EPA get to work on those, quietly.

But the ideologues, the ones who have waged committed war against climate science for decades, want the confrontation. They want the US government to proclaim itself on their side. They want to win the culture war. And they will be stoked by right-wing media to feel outraged and aggrieved until they get that confrontation.

Similarly, most of the business community (even oil companies like Exxon) did not want to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. They understood that it imposed no real legal obligations or penalties, that the issue was mostly symbolic — again, a culture-war distraction, likely to attract unwelcome attention to Trump’s regulatory agenda.

But the ideologues — the nationalists who can’t say “Paris” without spitting, the hardcore climate change denialists — wanted the confrontation. They wanted the culture-war win, the symbolic screw-you to elites and globalists. Pruitt, a true creature of the right, was one of the greatest proponents of pulling out.

And he got to Trump, who has now cemented his status as an international pariah.

In both cases — and a dozen more examples could be drawn from various parts of the GOP agenda — the fervid passions and resentments of the GOP base have pushed the party’s policy agenda beyond even what the party hacks and plutocrats want, to the party’s political detriment.

Trump and Pruitt are the GOP

Trump is notorious for being unable to communicate rationally with people who disagree with him, and for being unable to avoid dumb symbolic fights that get him in trouble to no practical advantage.

In both respects, he’s not that different from today’s GOP writ large. Over the past few decades, the conservative base has become so thoroughly hived off from mainstream institutions and media that it effectively lives in a parallel universe, increasingly unable to communicate with those outside the bubble or to restrain its most extreme impulses.

Trump, Pruitt, and today’s GOP are the inevitable outcome of that process, which has been unfolding right under our noses. It got bad under Gingrich, worse under the reign of George W. Bush, and utterly out of control under Obama. In health care policy, tax policy, and environmental policy, the intellectual foundation has rotted away. What remains is will to power, the raw impulse to degrade and destroy anything liberals support, and the belief that hesitation or circumspection amounts to treachery.

Of course Pruitt operates in secret, counseled by industry and ideologues, unwilling and unable to engage the broader public. He is a Republican in 2017.

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