Pruitt putting ‘a drag’ on EPA, House Democrats tell agency employees

As Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt prepares to testify before members of two House committees Thursday, Democratic House lawmakers, together with the largest federal employee union, have called on Pruitt to step down amid a growing number of federal investigations.

Currently, there are 10 oversight inquiries into Pruitt’s actions at the EPA, including his spending on security and official travel, as well reports of a favorable deal on a Washington, D.C. condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist.

“This is probably a problem that the Trump White House doesn’t need,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said. “I’m not sure why Trump has kept him so far. We’ve clearly seen enormous turnover in this administration, so they’re not afraid to get rid of people that are a drag.”

Last Wednesday, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told members of the House Appropriations Committee that his office would investigate EPA’s spending on a soundproof “privacy booth” in Pruitt’s office.

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On April 16, the Government Accountability Office determined that the EPA violated federal spending laws when it spent more than $43,000 on the booth without notifying the appropriation committees.

On Thursday, Pruitt will testify before members of the House Appropriations and Energy and Commerce committees, where he will defend President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal for the agency.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla), a member of the House Appropriations and Budget committees, said Congress could tighten Pruitt’s reins on agency spending if OMB doesn’t recommend disciplinary action against Pruitt.

“I can assure you, even if all else fails, we are going to hold him accountable. He can hold him responsible in the appropriations process, we can insert language in the report alongside his budget making sure that we get the answers that we need,” Wasserman Schultz said.

In the 2018 budget deal that Congress reached in March, lawmakers gave the EPA a flat budget compared to 2017 enacted levels, but spared the agency from the Trump administration’s proposal to cut its budget by nearly a third.

The omnibus spending deal also blocked funding for the EPA to reorganize its workforce or consolidate regional offices.

“The agreement does not include any of the requested funds for workforce reshaping. Further, the Committees do not expect the Agency to consolidate or close any regional offices in fiscal year 2018,” lawmakers wrote in their explanation of the spending bill.

However, the EPA is moving ahead with plans to close agency facilities in Las Vegas, Nevada, by the end of fiscal 2018, according to Tim Watkins, the director of the National Exposure Research Laboratory.

According to agency employees affected by the closure, the EPA interprets the phrase “regional offices” in the 2018 omnibus to mean the agency can’t consolidate the 10 regional offices that serve as hubs for multiple states and U.S. territories.

But it’s unclear whether lawmakers sought to protect those hubs, or agency sites in individual cities.

“I see that we’re going to have to write these spending bills in the most specific words possible, because the administration seems take them as loosely as they possible can,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), the co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Transparency Caucus.

The Democratic lawmakers pointed to a number of Republican colleagues that have also weighed in on the Pruitt investigations.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has asked Pruitt for documents regarding his spending on travel and security.

“Trey Gowdy, who leads [the] Oversight [Committee], has been very clear and strong about needing to get to the bottom of this,” Beyer said.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) said Pruitt has “failed pretty miserably” in getting Republicans to support EPA reorganization.

For an example, he pointed to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who spoke out last year on a proposal to close the EPA Region 5 office in Chicago.

“He understands the sort of damage that will be done if these incredible scientific resources deployed at the major EPA region headquarters are dispersed in a way that they’d lose their scientific momentum,” Foster said.

In recent weeks, Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) have called on Pruitt to resign as EPA administrator.

Nate James, an IT specialist at the EPA and president of AFGE Local 3331, which represents EPA headquarters employees, said workplace morale has been on a sharp decline since Pruitt took office.

“I’ve been here 18 years at EPA, and in the past six years, it’s been going on a decline as far as morale. But these past 16 months have been tougher than ever.”