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Column / Harder Line

How America got its most powerful EPA boss

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Scott Pruitt is the most aggressive leader of the Environmental Protection Agency in its almost 50-year history. But he didn't come out of nowhere. His ascendance to the agency reflects changing politics of the past few decades.

My thought bubble: When the nonstop Twitter-sized news cycle makes everything seem like the biggest and newest deal ever, tracking down historical context is a worthy exercise. Pruitt's environmental views are actually in line with most of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. What's changed is how empowered Pruitt is under President Trump, the emergence of climate change as a top environmental issue and a prior administration that was aggressive in its own right issuing regulations.

In interviews with five former EPA bosses and many other longtime agency watchers, a clearer picture emerges of where Pruitt's still new but already controversial stint fits into EPA's history.

Pruitt stands out as an outlier in EPA's history for three reasons.

  1. Most past Republican presidents nominated EPA administrators who were more to the left on environmental issues than the Republican Party writ large. That's not the case this time with Pruitt, a former attorney general of Oklahoma with very little expertise in environmental issues. Like most Republicans in public office at the federal level, Pruitt opposes most regulations, questions climate change science and emphasizes economic growth. This dynamic empowers Pruitt because there's no tension between the EPA and White House like there has been in prior Republican administrations, such as between then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and the George W. Bush White House. There's also little tension with the GOP-controlled Congress.
  2. The EPA has (mostly) solved the most basic and widespread public health and environmental problems that plagued the U.S. back around the '60's. Climate change is now the top environmental issue in the country. That politicizes the EPA, makes it less of a big deal to average Americans and fuels antipathy from elected Republicans, most of whom don't acknowledge it's a real issue.
  3. The Obama administration issued a steady stream of major regulations on climate change and other more traditional pollution, which were partly prompted by inaction or lawsuits from the Bush administration. It was one of the most aggressive EPA's ever, and the first one to address climate change. Those two things swung Washington's political pendulum to the left, and then stirred political momentum to swing it to the right.

"Getting compared to who came before and who came after is inevitable," said Carol Browner, the longest-serving EPA administrator in history who ran the agency under Democrat President Bill Clinton. "If you follow an inactive administration it looks like you're active and you are because that's your job."

Pruitt's leadership so far most closely resembles that of the late Anne Gorsuch Burford, the first EPA administrator under Reagan who resigned two years into her tenure. She faced backlash for cutting the agency's budget and repealing a host of Carter-era policies. Pruitt is the first EPA boss since her to prioritize repealing regulations.

"A few prior EPA Administrators have given lip service to regulatory reform, but they have always focused on leaving an environmental legacy," said Jeff Holmstead, a top EPA official in the Bush administration and a former frontrunner to be the No. 2. official in Trump's EPA. "Administrator Pruitt has shown that he is much more interested in reducing regulatory burdens than in getting positive reviews from the environmental community."

There are some important differences between now and then.

"Pruitt and the people who are helping him are more sophisticated," said Bill Ruckelshaus, EPA's first administrator when Republican President Richard Nixon created the agency in 1970. "Therefore, he can do more damage at least in my eyes, and have a bigger impact than was true of Anne Gorsuch Burford or anybody else."

The 85-year-old Ruckelshaus, speaking by phone from Seattle last week, would know because Reagan asked him to come back to restore the public's trust in the agency in 1983 after Burford resigned.

Ruckelshaus says there's another big difference from the '80's: the rise of influential conservative groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation since then that are backing Pruitt's agenda.

All of the former EPA administrators I interviewed don't support how Pruitt is handling things. They say he's shirking the agency's mission of protecting the environment by repealing so many regulations. That said, I didn't get to question two of the most recent administrators whose agendas were more aligned with that of Pruitt.

  • Stephen Johnson, who ran EPA for the last four years of the Bush administration, faced criticism for slow-walking action on climate change. Reached by phone last week, Johnson said he wasn't taking interviews. He did answer one question though: He has talked with Pruitt since he took over EPA. No other former agency chief going back to the George H. W. Bush administration I talked to has talked to Pruitt since he took over the agency. Ruckelshaus said every other incoming EPA chief has reached out to him other than Pruitt.
  • Mike Leavitt, who briefly ran EPA under Bush before Johnson, declined to be interviewed, saying through a spokesperson that he hasn't been following EPA issues for 12 years and wasn't prepared to discuss Pruitt.

For the record: Pruitt wasn't available for an interview. An EPA spokeswoman pushed back against the notion that Pruitt is not committed to EPA's mission of protecting the environment. "We are not disregarding it; we are restoring it," said EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman. "We believe the core mission of the Agency is to deliver real results to provide Americans with clean air, land, and water."

Editor's note: Harder Line is off next week. It'll be back August 14.

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