Science

Pruitt Exemplified How Partisanship Hinders Policymaking

Everyone is worried that a scandal-free EPA will more effectively destroy regulation. But this discounts the problems that have plagued the Trump administration’s effectiveness.

Scott Pruitt in front of industrial chimneys.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by George Frey/Getty Image, Thinkstock.

In the wake of Scott Pruitt’s resignation from his post as administrator, a narrative is emerging that the Environmental Protection Agency will now finally be able to get serious about its deregulation goals. The idea is that Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator, will find success where Pruitt failed because the agency will no longer be weighed down by Pruitt’s ethical misdeeds. There is some logic to this line of thought, but the narrative overlooks the root causes of Pruitt’s, and the broader Trump administration’s, ineffectiveness on the regulatory front: Both are unable to effectively deploy the government resources at their disposal, which is a much greater handicap than scandals. Pruitt’s actions, for example, were repeatedly reversed by the courts, but not because of the parade of scandals that made him resemble a cartoon villain. Instead, a series of deep pathologies, embedded not only at the EPA but also throughout much of the Trump administration, has been responsible for the lack of success. Unless these pathologies are addressed, the same difficulties are likely to continue both at the post-Pruitt EPA and across the administration.

Pruitt was one of the administration’s many ideological “true believers”—a group that often struggles to achieve policy success. Ideologues are unlikely to recognize that there might be good arguments on the other side, and the quality of their decision-making suffers as a result of their failure to confront such arguments. How skewed was Pruitt’s decision-making? A Reuters analysis published in April showed that Pruitt held 25 times more meetings with industry representatives than with environmental advocates, though the ratio was likely even more lopsided because Pruitt kept many meetings off his calendar or removed them retroactively. (It’s unlikely that these secret meetings were with environmental groups.) Moreover, Pruitt’s staff went to great lengths to shield him from tough questions from the public. Isolation of ideological groups can drive the views of individual group members further to the extreme, leading to increasing polarization between different ideological groups. Social cascades can lead to feedback loops where individuals rely largely on information from other members of their group and face reputational pressures to appeal to the ideological bent of their group. This pathology isolates group members from arguments made by opposing groups and reduces the quality of decision-making, thereby making it more legally vulnerable. And many of Pruitt’s actions at the EPA were ideologically extreme and legally questionable—it’s no surprise that court challenges have already forced the agency to reverse eight of these moves, and more court losses are likely on the way. As Cass Sunstein has noted, group polarization explains “both extremism and error.”

Another pathology common in federal-agency leadership in the Trump administration is the demonization and sidelining of career employees. This strategy invariably compromises the quality of agency decision-making, as it did at Pruitt’s EPA. Pruitt showed contempt for EPA career staff; he bullied them and dismissed their professionalism and scientific expertise. Even senior career employees rarely got to meet with Pruitt and were commonly frozen out of discussions. He also took the unprecedented step of making the floor in which his office was located inaccessible to career employees. Pruitt’s actions mirrored the more general rhetoric in the Trump administration portraying the “deep state” as a primary enemy.

Without the expertise of career employees, an agency is likely to struggle with some of its most basic tasks, particularly the notice-and-comment rule-making process. The EPA must follow this cumbersome and highly technical procedure to amend or repeal its substantive rules. Any proposed rule must carefully explain the scientific and economic basis for the new policy as well as the reasons for the change in policy. These explanations often run hundreds of pages in the Federal Register. A final rule must respond to all the public comments received; significant rules can receive millions. Any missteps along the way can lead to the policy change being set aside by the courts. The two dozen or so Pruitt loyalists at the EPA had neither the expertise nor the bandwidth to perform these tasks. Even if career staffers weren’t dispirited from mistreatment, they couldn’t do their best work if they were excluded from substantive discussion about the policy changes that they were then expected to shepherd through the regulatory process. This is why Christine Todd Whitman, a former EPA administrator, called Pruitt’s strategy of sidelining career staff a big mistake, and it likely contributed to Pruitt accomplishing less while in office than he otherwise might have. Wheeler, who once worked in a staff role at the EPA, might be less likely to follow this approach.

Pruitt’s distrust of EPA career staff gave rise to another, related pathology. Because the small number of political appointees cannot possibly draft the hundreds of pages of Federal Register materials needed to repeal or amend rules, the EPA instead had to rely on work fed to it by trade associations representing the polluting industries that the agency regulates. Pruitt had already begun this practice as attorney general of Oklahoma, before joining the Trump administration. Pruitt’s letters to the EPA complaining about the policies that, as administrator, he later vowed to repeal were written by oil-industry lobbyists, copied onto his letterhead with virtually no modifications. Beyond the questionable ethics of such a move, trade associations are frequently dominated by their most extreme members. They have more at stake in upending the existing regulatory regime and are therefore willing to expend more effort in pushing for more extreme approaches. As a result, they generally propose and push less legally supportable positions.

For example, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade association representing manufacturers of cars and light trucks sold in the United States, has been pushing the EPA to completely roll back vehicle-emissions standards for model years 2022 through 2025. Two of its members, Ford and Honda, broke from the group to instead urge the EPA (unsuccessfully), to keep the current standards in place but to provide additional flexibility in the existing standards, a far less legally fraught alternative. Sometimes, more moderate voices simply end their membership in a trade association, thereby leading the association to take the more extreme positions representing the views of its remaining members. (Over the years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, perhaps the nation’s most powerful lobbying group, suffered significant defections among some of its largest and most prominent members because of its strong opposition to greenhouse gas regulations.) While the proposal for the rollback has not yet been published, in shaping his vehicle-emisisons policy around the trade association’s requests, Pruitt has paved the way for a fierce legal battle that will likely create tremendous regulatory uncertainty for automakers.

A fourth pathology common in the Trump administration, and particularly problematic in Pruitt’s EPA, concerns a tendency to give favored groups even more than they asked for. Conservative advocates found sympathetic ears in prior Republican administrations, but their requests were still evaluated by the relevant agencies and they didn’t always get everything they asked for. There was therefore an incentive to ask for a lot, knowing that they would get somewhat less. But this administration often gives everything and more to the conservative advocates, which upends the equation. The clearest example of this practice is found in President Trump’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military. The impetus for that policy change came from certain House Republicans’ demand for a ban on Pentagon-funded sex-reassignment surgeries as a condition for supporting a spending bill. Trump’s complete ban on transgender troops went far beyond what they had requested. With respect to the car standards, one former EPA official noted that the manufacturers were not expecting the significant rollbacks that now seem likely and are unlikely to be pleased with the result because of the uncertainties about how these rollbacks will fare in the courts. By taking more extreme positions than even those advocated by the regulated community, this administration increases the legal risk that the agency’s actions would ultimately be set aside by the courts. (Rational actors would ask for less under these circumstances, but most groups haven’t yet adapted to this dynamic.)

Yet another pathology: Pruitt’s actions focused on a short-term horizon. Short-termism has been well studied in the corporate sector, where competitive demands on managers to maximize profits, combined with inadequate market signals to effectively predict long-term risk, incentivize “earnings management” to maximize immediate profit, compromising long-term consequences. But short-termism can exist in public life as well. It was widely reported from early in his tenure that Pruitt harbored aspirations to run for statewide office in Oklahoma or to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Trying to bolster his reputation in conservative circles, Pruitt focused on creating a beehive of activity by rapidly delaying, staying, and suspending Obama administration rules, and then turning to quick repeals. The rushed nature of this work led to sloppiness that is unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny. A public official with a long-term horizon would worry about the eventual losses, but a short-termer would plan an exit before the failure of the strategy became well understood. Then, from the more exalted perch of another office, he could blame his successor for the consequent failures, suggesting that things would have worked out better under his leadership.

Nothing in the public record suggests that Andrew Wheeler, the new acting administrator, shares the political ambitions that Pruitt harbored when he arrived at the EPA. Nonetheless, it might suit the Trump administration to continue Pruitt’s short-term strategy of frantic but legally compromised activity so that it can show its supporters in the regulated community a great deal of activity in the runup to the 2020 presidential election, thereby maximizing their financial support.

Still, these pathologies combined to undermine Pruitt’s effectiveness as administrator. His legacy will likely suffer further as a result of upcoming court decisions. But these traits are not exclusive to the Pruitt EPA. They also exist elsewhere in the Trump administration, and it is far from clear that Pruitt’s departure will make much of a substantive difference. Without a political commitment to address the pathologies, we might see less scandal, but we are likely to see more of the same ideologically driven, legally fraught policymaking from Wheeler’s EPA, and elsewhere in the Trump administration.