What happens when Pruitt leaves?

Source: Niina Heikkinen, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Scott Pruitt won’t be at EPA forever.

So far, the agency administrator has exhibited remarkable staying power. He’s weathered a storm of public outcry and federal investigations over his spending on housing, security and travel. And allegations of outlandish purchases continue to pile up. A recent example: EPA shelled out nearly $3,000 on “tactical pants” and “tactical polos” as part of its security expenditures, The Interceptreported last week.

Part of the reason Pruitt has kept his position, many observers speculate, is that President Trump likes the job his EPA chief is doing, and the administration would have a tough time getting a replacement confirmed. But it’s unclear how long Pruitt will stick around. Even before the allegations against him reached a fever pitch earlier this year, Pruitt was widely expected to leave the agency before the end of Trump’s term. And if Democrats take control of either chamber of Congress in this year’s midterm elections, Pruitt will have even more incentive to jump ship to avoid a barrage of uncomfortable oversight hearings.

So what happens to EPA and to Trump’s agenda if Pruitt goes?

In terms of leadership changes, the most likely person to temporarily replace Pruitt would be his deputy, Andrew Wheeler. A former coal lobbyist and aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he is considered to be a possible steadying force in an agency rocked by months of scandals. Those who have worked with Wheeler view him as a collaborative leader who works well across party lines — a contrast to Pruitt’s polarizing reputation.

Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, EPA’s second in command is the top choice for taking over the daily functions of the agency, though the president has the authority to pick another qualified replacement either from within EPA or another federal agency.

For example, Trump could choose to follow a line of succession first outlined under the Obama administration. First in line after the deputy would be EPA’s general counsel, Matt Leopold, followed by the agency’s air chief, Bill Wehrum (Climatewire, April 12).

The Vacancies Act gives acting officials 210 days in office, but the speed with which the president nominates a new administrator and the Senate acts to approve or deny the nominee can stretch the time longer. The acting official can stay in the role as long as a nomination for a new administrator is still pending, for up to two nomination cycles, according to one source familiar with the law.

If the Senate rejects the first nomination, or the current congressional term comes to an end and the president has to renominate an administrator, then the acting administrator will continue in his or her role until the Senate comes to a decision on the second nomination. If at that point the Senate denies the nomination, the president would have to name a new acting administrator and the process would begin again.

What would it mean to be acting administrator during that time period?

Wheeler would have the same decisionmaking authority to act as Pruitt has now. And unlike career officials like Catherine McCabe, who led the agency during the Trump administration transition, Wheeler is a political appointee already working within the administration toward shared policy goals.

“I think Andrew and Scott Pruitt are very well in line on policy, and certainly there is an understanding of where the president is on these issues,” said Matt Dempsey, who knew Wheeler from his time on Capitol Hill.

Like Wheeler, Dempsey also worked for Inhofe and the EPW Committee. Dempsey described Wheeler as someone who had worked closely with the press and ran a “strong media operation” as Inhofe’s staff director.

“Everyone who works with Andrew loves Andrew. He inspires loyalty,” Dempsey added.

Kenneth Kopocis, who led EPA’s water office as its deputy assistant administrator during the Obama administration, said it would be unusual for an acting official to halt an action started by the previous administrator, but they do have the ability to make some modifications. Kopocis was nominated by Obama to be the office’s assistant administrator but wasn’t confirmed due to Senate Republicans’ opposition to Obama’s environmental policies.

“There is a certain amount of continuation, but part of that is things don’t just happen overnight, and once they get started, they take on a certain momentum,” Kopocis said.

He noted that when he was first nominated to lead the water office, he was initially reluctant to take on a high profile at the agency.

“When it became clear the Senate was not going to confirm me, there was no reason to maintain a low profile, I was in a position to put forward policies I thought were important,” Kopocis said. “Whatever changes I wanted to make, we pursued those. My voice was raised in the process, mostly because there was no reason to be concerned about the Senate’s perception.”

Wheeler, who was just sworn in this April, has maintained a low profile at the agency as his boss has consistently commanded the attention of political media.

“I don’t see him as trying to have the same level of profile that Pruitt has. The best work he’s done is well behind the scenes,” said Kopocis, who worked across the aisle from Wheeler as an aide to the Senate EPW Committee.

Kopocis recalled that Wheeler had “high willingness” to listen to industry concerns. Kopocis stressed the need for an EPA boss to work with a wide range of outside groups. “A lot of the things EPA does require coalition building, so you have to do coalition building,” he said.

While Wheeler’s leadership could mean less political drama, it could also raise new concerns for critics of the administration’s focus on slashing regulations — including climate rules for vehicles, power plants, and the oil and gas industry.

“For people who don’t like this agenda, having this drama is sort of helpful; having a calm, non-attention-getting person to march through could be more effective [at deregulating],” said one former EPA official.