At Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first Congressional hearing on Thursday, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), didn’t want to ask about Pruitt’s litany of ethical scandals. The congressman would have preferred talking about the important function that the EPA plays in maintaining clean air and water, or about the Trump administration’s proposed 23 percent cut to the agency’s funding.
But faced with the chance to make Pruitt publicly account for his numerous scandals — many of which are the subject of nearly a dozen federal inquiries — Tonko, the ranking Democratic lawmaker on the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on the Environment, felt obligated to try and hold the EPA administrator accountable for his actions.
“Everybody should be speaking up to his failed leadership and his unethical behavior,” Tonko told ThinkProgress. “Congress should have an oversight role here and that is very critical to the environment of our nation. We are the stewards of the environment for future generations.”
On Thursday, Pruitt traveled to Capitol Hill for two hearings before the House of Representatives. The hearings were the first time Pruitt would speak before government since news broke of Pruitt’s $50-per-night condo deal with the wife of an energy lobbyist and substantial pay raises for political aides.
The hearings were nominally about the administration’s proposed budget, which calls for a more than $2.5 billion cut to the EPA. But like Tonko, many Democratic representatives took the opportunity to grill Pruitt on his series of ethical missteps, from reports that he reassigned staff who criticized him to his lavish spending habits on travel and office furniture.
“Sadly, we should have been talking about the importance of the EPA and all that it does for clean air and safe water and remediated soils,” Tonko said. “Instead, we dwelled on his mismanagement and abuse of power and unethical behavior. That’s unfortunate.”
Tonko described questioning Pruitt — a notoriously elusive subject — as “frustrating,” noting that he rarely offered lawmakers a straightforward answer, even when presented with a yes or no question (it took one representative three attempts before Pruitt would answer “yes” to the question of whether or not he was the EPA administrator).
Still, Tonko had one of the more successful stretches of questioning Pruitt. In their exchange, Tonko forced the administrator to admit that he had delegated authority to his chief of staff permitting raises for two political aides — something that he had previously denied in an interview with Fox News in early April. On Thursday, Pruitt maintained that he did not know the amount of the raises given to his two aides — one for $28,000 and another for $56,000, which is just slightly below the median household income for an American family.
“The impression was that he is not in charge and he is not embracing the mission of the agency,” Tonko said of Pruitt’s performance before the committee. “The public is being poorly served by the fact that he does not maintain a passion to make cleaner the air you breathe and safer the water you drink.”
Still, despite his admission that he had been aware of the raises — and therefore lied to Fox News — Pruitt seems likely to have saved his job, at least for the time being, in large part due to his ability to sidestep questioning. Trump, for his part, has not commented on Pruitt’s performance on Thursday, spending the day instead tweeting about hip hop artist Kanye West.
Pruitt’s appearance on Thursday was also boosted by a handful of Republican representatives, who either declined to press Pruitt on his ethical issues or spent their time chastising Democratic lawmakers for asking questions about the administrator’s management and spending history.
“[Republican lawmakers] say we are using these ethical dynamics and mismanagement as a way to destroy the [Trump] agenda,” Tonko said. “I have concern for both. I’m concerned about his unethical agenda and his abuse of power and the misuse of the public tax dollars and misconduct. It’s legitimate and authentic.”
With Pruitt’s job appearing safe — at least for now — Tonko said that Democratic lawmakers are going to continue to try and hold the administrator accountable, both to Congress and the public.
According to Tonko, the minority side of the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on the Environment compiled a list of questions from the hearing that Pruitt either did not answer or side-stepped, which they have sent to the EPA with a request for answers. And Tonko says that he wants to try and bring Pruitt back to the Hill to continue to testify in public, both about his actions and the EPA’s agenda writ large.
But Democrats face an uphill battle in holding Pruitt accountable, with Republican lawmakers appearing loathe to press the administrator on his ethical missteps. During Thursday’s first hearing, Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) accused Democratic lawmakers of participating in “political blood sport” for their questions related to Pruitt’s scandals. Committee leadership, meanwhile, asked softball questions that allowed Pruitt to chalk up the scandals to a “distraction” to the administration’s agenda.
“It’s not a sound agenda so of course we are going to be against it,” Tonko said. But he made clear that for Democratic lawmakers, the focus on Pruitt’s scandals isn’t going away any time soon. “It shouldn’t be a pool of dollars that enables him to travel his routine ways where you have special sound booths established and luxury travel and vehicles that are super equipped. This is a misuse of funds along with a demonized environmental agenda.”