On Thursday morning, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared before the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Environment for the first of two hearings on Capitol Hill.
It was Pruitt’s first appearance before Congress since a cascade of scandals and ethics questions broke, from Pruitt’s $50-a-night condo deal with the wife of an energy lobbyist to reports that Pruitt reassigned staff critical of his spending habits.
But Republican lawmakers were largely disinterested in pressing Pruitt for answers on those scandals, preferring instead to praise the administrator for his deregulatory actions over the last year.
“I was hoping that we could stay on policy as much as we could today, but I see some just can’t resist the limelight,” Rep. McKinley (R-WV) said during the hearing, describing Pruitt’s scandals as “a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism.”
At the outset of April, when news of Pruitt’s condo arrangement first broke, conservatives’ support was strongly behind Pruitt. But ahead of Thursday’s hearing, there was some feeling that support from conservative lawmakers was beginning to waver.
On Sunday, in response to a question on Twitter, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) said that Pruitt “should resign” and that he was the “wrong fit from the start for [sic] agency dedicated to protecting our environment” — bringing the total of Republican lawmakers calling for Pruitt’s resignation to five.
But any criticism voiced earlier by conservatives was not voiced on Thursday. Instead, at the first hearing on Thursday morning, Republican lawmakers largely defended Pruitt against the barrage of ethical questions, shifting the blame from the administrator onto the press, Democratic lawmakers, and opponents of Pruitt’s anti-regulatory agenda.
“If you can’t debate the policies, you attack the personality, and that’s what’s happening to you,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), said, adding that Pruitt was “the victim of Washington politics.”
Barton then defended Pruitt’s history of first class travel for EPA business — which cost some $105,000 during the administrator’s first year — saying that it’s not “illegal” for government officials to fly first class.
Federal rules require government employees to fly coach except in very limited circumstances, such as when there are no coach flights readily available or in the face of serious security threats. Pruitt has said that his first class flights were due to security concerns, though the Senate Democrats argue that the EPA has not produced proof of any credible threats against Pruitt while flying.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) has also questioned Pruitt and the EPA’s justification for first class flights.
Republican lawmakers also spent time criticizing their Democratic colleagues for pressing Pruitt on ethical concerns during the morning hearing. Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), who asked a single question about whether Pruitt had ever reassigned staff that disagreed with his policies, accused Democratic lawmakers of participating in “political blood sport to try and destroy anybody associated with the Trump administration.” Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) called Democrats’ attempts to hold Pruitt accountable for his ethics questions “shameful.”
“I think it’s shameful today that this hearing has turned into a personal attack hearing, and a shameful attempt to denigrate the work that is being done at the EPA and with this administration,” Johnson said, following a line of questioning by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) about a home Pruitt purchased and rented to another lawmaker during his time as a state legislator in Oklahoma.
Johnson’s criticism of Democratic lawmakers came despite the Republican leadership’s stated goal of addressing some of Pruitt’s ethical concerns during the hearing. In his opening statement, Environment Subcommittee Chairman Rep. John Shimkus said that while he found the scandals “a distraction,” they were nonetheless something “this committee cannot ignore.”
Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) also said during his opening statement that the committee should address questions surrounding Pruitt’s ethical issues and use of taxpayer dollars.
“Members on both sides of the aisle have some serious questions about the management and operations of the agency,” said Walden, who serves as the chairman of the full Energy & Commerce Committee, during his opening statement. “We expect you to answer these questions fully and truthfully.”
When it came time to questioning, however, neither Shimkus nor Walden appeared too keen to press Pruitt on his ethics issues. Shimkus allowed Pruitt to take a minute and a half to explain, in his own words, his scandals, leaving the administrator to call the issues “a distraction to our agenda.”
Walden, for his part, asked Pruitt to provide the committee with “all the documents and information EPA produces” for the numerous federal inquiries currently underway.
“My question is pretty easy,” Walden said, perhaps unintentionally summing up the Republican lawmakers’ approach to Pruitt’s scandals.