The first of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s two House appearances on Thursday, this one before the the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, was introduced by Republican John Shimkus as being about “policy and stewardship.” But throughout the day, Republicans ignored the stewardship part of that charter, and attacked Democrats for any question they asked Pruitt about his outlandish actions or expenditures at the EPA.
But Democrats persisted in asking. And Scott Pruitt continued his pattern of denying responsibility for anything and everything in his department. It’s a good thing the EPA doesn’t regulate the emissions of metaphorical busses, because Pruitt lined them up to mow down his staff with an un-surprising regularity. When California Democratic Tony Cárdenas asked about Pruitt’s expensive phone booth, Pruitt reached new levels of being unaware of events in his own agency.
Pruitt: I did have a phone call come in, of a sensitive nature, and I did not have access to secure communications. I gave direction to my staff to address that. And out of that came a $43,000 expenditure that I did not approve. That is something that …
Cárdenas: So you’re not taking responsibility for the $43,000 that was spent in your office? You’re saying that staff did it without your knowledge?
Pruitt: Correct. Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through.
Cárdenas: So you were not involved in that?
Pruitt: I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000 and if I had known about it, Congressman, I would have refused it.
Somehow, either all EPA administrators previous to Pruitt never had a sensitive communication, or they found the two secure communications facilities that already existed in the EPA office adequate to their needs. But according to Pruitt, he made an innocent request, and those “career individuals” were to blame. Because Pruitt did not accept the blame for anything. Nothing at all.
Meanwhile, Republicans spent their time between arguing over whether the EPA should be supporting small oil refineries, large oil refineries, or just all oil refineries. And Republicans unveiled their new line of attack against every scientific study done in support of public health over the last five decades, as one congressman after another sneered at “secret science.”
Congressman Frank Pallone’s (D-NJ) opening statement summarized the Democratic position on Pruitt neatly.
Pallone: In any other administration, you would be long gone by now, Mr. Pruitt. … Clearly you do not believe in EPA’s mission. … You are unfit to hold public office, and undeserving of the public trust.
Pruitt responded by saying that those who had attacked him did so because they wanted to “derail the president’s agenda,” which was a theme picked up by every Republican who spoke. If the word going into the hearing was that the White House was less than one hundred percent behind Pruitt, that word didn’t reach Republican congressmen, who generated logic pretzels by the score to support Pruitt’s actions and tossed him one “would you please expound on …” softball after another.
The only two areas of concern that Republicans seem to have concerning upcoming EPA decisions are the future of ethanol, and the best size for oil refineries, as questions came up repeatedly concerning E15 and standards for renewable fuels. Pruitt rambled in response, talking about the need to look more into the benefits of “high octane” and attacking the CAFE standards. But when it came to taking responsibility for the raises illegally handed out to his Oklahoma friends …
New York Democratic Representative Paul Tonko: You claim to have been unaware of those raises. The Inspector General released preliminary information that your chief of staff signed those documents on your behalf.
Pruitt: Those decisions were delegated to Mr. Jackson.
Tonko: So you authorized Mr. Jackson to … Were you aware?
Pruitt: I was not aware of the amount, nor was I aware of the bypassing or the PPO process not being respected.
That’s not to say that Republicans never asked anything to do with how Pruitt runs his office.
Texas Republican Joe Barton opened his time saying that Pruitt was …
Barton: Not the first person to be the victim of Washington Politics. You got picked on because of the service you provided the state of Oklahoma in fighting Obama administration radical policies …
After more time spent praising Pruitt and attacking Democrats, Barton got down to three quick questions:
Barton: Was your housing cost approved before it was signed?
Pruitt: There have been two ethics reviews saying that it met market rates.
Barton: You’ve been attacked for flying first class. Is that illegal?
Pruitt: That was approved by …
Barton: It may look bad, but it’s not illegal. There was an energy secretary under the Clinton administration, Hazel O’Leary, who rented a party jet used by rock stars, have you ever rented a party jet?
Hazel O’Leary was one of the first female, African American cabinet officers. The attack on her rental of a “party jet” goes back twenty years, and concerns a plane rented to fly a 67-person delegation to South Africa. The plane was a 35-year-old craft that was—once—chartered by Madonna. This is what made it a “party jet for rock stars.” The attack on O’Leary in 1996 was led by … Texas Congressman Joe Barton, who launched an investigation into the chartered plane. So the answer to Barton’s question about flying first class is no, it’s not illegal—for white, male, Republicans.
Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention might notice that, even in the softball versions provided by Barton, Pruitt didn’t actually answer any of these questions. But at least one of them was revisited.
Cárdenas: Did any of the attorneys at the EPA look at your lease before you signed it?
Pruitt: The review that took place, took place afterwards.
Much of the remainder of the hearing was devoted to Republicans defending Pruitt’s new “transparency” rule. The Republican script on the new rule is that it’s a fight against “secret science” by which Democrats defend “a political agenda without showing their data”—phrases that came up repeatedly.
It fell to California Democrat Raul Ruiz to show just what the impact of Pruitt’s decision will be.
Ruiz: The same studies you want to exclude are the same studies that prove lead in pipes harm children and the dangers of second hand smoke. … would you now deny now that fine particle pollution has health impacts, and will these new regulations cause your agency to disregard these seminal studies?
Pruitt: If they provide the data and methodology to the agency and their findings, then we’ll use them.
Ruiz: That is a clear violation of ethical rules protecting patient confidentiality.
Pruitt: Those can be redacted, Congressman. …
Ruiz: I’m an emergency physician. … I know the importance of protecting patient privacy to get more participants … This is disgraceful.
Handing over patient data is still a violation of both regulations and ethics. Pruitt’s mention that the information can be “redacted” is a pure smoke screen.
But Republicans were not about to give Pruitt anything other than effusive praise and protection. A position best exemplified by West Virginia Republican David McKinley.
McKinley: This is a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism. I was hoping we would be able to stay on policy, but I can see that some just can’t resist the limelight and have to grandstand. …
McKinley is also the proud owner of the phrase of the day. In his single question to Pruitt, the West Virginia Republican’s sole concern was whether or not Pruitt could “do something” to help a friend who owned a small oil refinery. So small, that it was really “a boutique refinery.”