Behind the Massive Upheavals at the EPA and Interior

Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke are courting chaos—and calling it a victory for good governance.

January 19, 2018
Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke during President Trump's order directing the EPA review of the Clean Power Plan, March 2017

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Let’s say you’re a rogue U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator hell-bent on destroying the legacy of your own agency, dedicated to subverting its stated goals and contemptuous of its historic mission. You’ve already rolled back dozens of important environmental protections, extended a warm embrace to the corporate polluters you’re supposed to be fighting, and quite literally shut yourself off from your employees.

So what’s next? Well, as any self-respecting saboteur will tell you, there’s no better way to hamper your organization’s overall effectiveness than by decimating your staff. After all, the lower your head count, the harder it is for you to delegate authority and carry out your duties. Those skilled in the black arts of agency self-destruction—those operating at the level of, say, a Scott Pruitt—know well that what doesn’t get done can be just as important as what does. And an EPA that might be cut nearly in half can’t be expected to get as much done as a fully staffed one, now, can it?

One year ago, when Donald Trump took office, the EPA had about 15,000 employees. As of January 3, it had 14,162. The last time the agency’s head count was that low, Ronald Reagan was president, a fact that the agency proudly trumpets. “We're happy to be at Reagan-level employment numbers,” one EPA official recently told the conservative Washington Examiner. But Pruitt hopes to go the Gipper one better by getting that number down even further—to the high four digits—through a combination of attrition and an already instituted hiring freeze. The slate of upcoming retirements offers “a preview of how low we could get,” according to this spokesperson. “It would be fair to say anywhere from 25 to 47 percent of EPA could retire during this administration.”

Back in September, when news began to break of generous buyouts and a mass exodus of employees at the EPA, Pruitt publicly expressed his great pride in “reducing the size of government” and “protecting taxpayer dollars.” Alongside his spokesperson’s telltale evocations of Ronald Reagan, Pruitt’s language suggests that he sees the gutting of this agency as a win for government efficiency, a broadside against bureaucracy.

Except the EPA isn’t the DMV. The agency overseen by Pruitt is tasked with nothing less than protecting our health and mitigating environmental hazards. And as anyone who’s been paying even a modicum of attention already knows, the environmental hazards that the EPA was designed to mitigate are all around us: in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we tread. Halving the agency’s workforce—or cutting its operating budget by more than 30 percent, a goal proposed by President Trump and supported by Pruitt—isn’t a win for government efficiency. It’s administrative malpractice.

Demand real leadership at the EPA

It’s also contagious, apparently. Last week, Ryan Zinke, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, announced a major reorganization of his agency—the largest in its history—that would result in tens of thousands of employees being moved from their current posts to new ones, many of them in western states. The reorganization is consonant with President Trump’s $1.6 billion proposed budget cut for Interior, a cut that Zinke has endorsed and that will mean the loss of at least 4,000 jobs. Back in November, as he and others were laying the groundwork for this monumentally disruptive plan, Zinke expressed frustration with the perceived centrality of Washington, D.C., to the carrying out of the department’s mission. “The previous administration was focused on consolidating and bringing more power to D.C.,” he told one reporter. “We’ve gotten so bureaucratic.”

I qualify the word centrality with the word perceived because, as my NRDC colleague Sharon Buccino has pointed out, a look at the current distribution of Interior employees gives the lie to Zinke’s tendentious claim. In point of fact, these employees are spread evenly throughout the country, as they should be for a department responsible for managing all the nation’s public lands. Roughly 5 percent work in or around D.C. But conservative governing orthodoxy holds it as an article of faith that our nation’s capital is a bureaucratic leviathan that can be slain only through budget cuts, job cuts, and decentralization. Whether that’s true—or whether such measures are genuinely called for in the name of better government—is beside the point. The point is that it sounds tough, especially when the speaker is wearing a cowboy hat and standing next to a horse in some identifiably non-Washington locale.

Department of the Interior, Leadership Summit: Planning for the Next 100 Years (Jan 10, 2018)

For decades now, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, employment numbers at Interior and EPA have bobbed up and down but have never dropped so precipitously as to attract much national attention. That’s because members of both parties have recognized that protecting our environment and preserving our public lands are important jobs—too important to subject to personal vendettas or political vagaries. But things have changed. As he has done in so many other cases, President Trump has upended the norms that shape the way we think about these two critical agencies.

Efficiency is always a worthy goal, for any organization. But budget cuts, staff reductions, and massive restructurings need to be conducted in good faith, and only after much thoughtful analysis. The changes at EPA and Interior feel more hostile than thoughtful, more punitive than philosophical. That should come as no surprise, given the environmental record of this administration. History will judge that record very unkindly.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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