Politics

EPA’s Pruitt Faces Bipartisan Criticism at Senate Spending Panel

Discussion of agency’s budget takes back seat to scandals

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faced some hard questions when he appeared before a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt faced a bipartisan lashing at a Senate Interior-Environment Appropriation Subcommittee hearing where agency scandals largely eclipsed discussion of the fiscal 2019 budget.

“I am concerned that many of the important policy efforts that you are engaged in are being overshadowed because of a series of issues related to you and your management of the agency,” Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said as she kicked off a hearing on the EPA’s fiscal 2019 budget.

Senators, especially Democrats, focused questions and commentary on numerous investigations into Pruitt’s conduct — including the use of sirens in non-emergency situations as he traveled in government vehicles, his below-market housing in the home of an energy lobbyist, and his pricey 24-hour-a-day security detail and the $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office.

It all seemed to exasperate Murkowski.

“I’m being asked — really constantly — asked, to comment on security, on housing, and on travel,” she told Pruitt. “Instead of seeing articles about your efforts to return the agency to its core mission, I’m reading about your interactions with representatives of the industry that you regulate.”

Better choices?

Pruitt conceded that better choices could have been made.

“There have been decisions over the last 16 or so months, that as I look back on those decisions, I would not make the same decisions again,” Pruitt said, specifically mentioning the installation in his office of a $43,000 privacy phone booth that was deemed by the Government Accountability Office to exceed legal spending limits.

Still, in what has now become his habit under grilling from lawmakers, he offered a qualification. “Some of the areas of criticism are frankly areas where processes at the agency were not properly instituted to prevent certain abuses from happening,” he said.

All the bluster minimized discussion of the agency’s fiscal 2019 budget. Pruitt was appearing before the committee Wednesday to defend the White House’s $6.1 billion 2019 budget outline for the EPA, which proposes to reduce its spending by 26 percent from 2017 levels and by 25 percent from the $8.1 billion approved in the fiscal 2018 omnibus.

“The agency’s final budget will not look a whole lot like this proposal,” Murkowksi said. She said large cuts were “unsustainable and would make it difficult” for state agencies to carry out environmental work.

Warning sign

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called Trump’s EPA budget a “giant blinking sign that you don’t take your responsibility to this country seriously.” The Interior-Environment subcommittee’s top Democrat has introduced a Senate resolution demanding Pruitt resign, a measure that is unlikely to get any Senate floor action.

Pruitt didn’t defend the Trump proposal during discussion of deep cuts to the Superfund program that provides federal funds to major contamination sites nationwide.

“Sometimes I’m not as persuasive as I want to be” with the Office of Management and Budget, Pruitt said in response to a question about the cuts from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

That provided a rare moment of agreement in the hearing, as Tester replied: “I agree with you on that, and I think it’s really really important, but talk is cheap, and people and resources are important because these things don’t go away unless we spend what we need.”

But scandals talk took up the bulk of discussion. Sparks flew when Pruitt would not provide a yes-or-no answer when asked if he personally requested the use of emergency sirens when there was not an emergency while traveling in government vehicles.

“There are policies that the agencies follow, and to my knowledge they follow in all instances,” Pruitt responded.

“Ok, here we go,” Udall said to laughs in the room.

Pruitt also confirmed to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that a legal defense fund had been established to help pay for Pruitt’s entanglements.

He didn’t directly answer Van Hollen’s yes or no question on whether he would accept anonymous donations for the fund: “Whatever the discussions with GAO, White House council’s office yields in that regard we will follow,” Pruitt said.

“Well then, you won’t be accepting anonymous donations or the rules won’t allow that,” Van Hollen retorted.

On the regulatory front, Pruitt confirmed that he expects a finalized proposed withdrawal of the Waters of the United States rule “sometime in the third quarter of this year,” and then propose a “replacement” of the rule by end of the year.

His appearance is the first before a Senate panel since January when he testified before the Environment and Public Works Committee. The controversies over his activities also include accusations of exorbitant spending on air travel and luxury hotels.

Pruitt is also facing “pay-for-play” allegations, including that lobbyists and donors who wanted favors from him helped plan lavish trips at taxpayer expense to foreign cities the administrator had personally picked.

Udall again called for his resignation at a press conference of Senate Democrats directly after the hearing.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.