Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to be the next director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, must be feeling pretty psyched this week.
On Monday, federal ethics officials gave him the all clear, bringing him one step closer to Senate confirmation. That, however, doesn’t alter the fact that Pruitt would be coming to the job with some serious baggage. He’s disconcertingly chummy with the heads of many of the energy companies he’ll be expected to regulate, for one thing. And he has displayed contempt for the agency he’s now being asked to lead—going so far as to accuse it (on his own LinkedIn page!) of having “an activist agenda.”
Pruitt may have cleared the ethics bar, but he shouldn’t get too cocky. The last time a fervently anti-regulation, pro-industry ideologue took over the reins at the EPA, it ended very badly—for the EPA director, I mean.
In spring of 1981, President Ronald Reagan was still basking in the glow of his landslide victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter. Unlike today, there was no debating whether the new president had a mandate. Reagan had promised, if elected, to vastly reduce the size and scope of the federal government. When he won by more than eight million popular votes (and, humiliatingly, allowed Carter fewer than 50 votes in the Electoral College), no one could doubt that he had earned the right to claim that the majority of Americans endorsed his small-government agenda.
Such was the political context Anne Gorsuch stepped into upon her swearing-in as EPA chief on May 5 of that year. A newcomer to the national stage, Gorsuch (who later added the last name Burford) had cut her teeth in corporate law, the Denver district attorney’s office, and the Colorado House of Representatives. There, her membership in a subgroup known as the House Crazies—a cluster of “conservative lawmakers intent on permanently changing government,” according to one Washington Post writer—caught the attention of the national GOP.
“There is no riper pasture for regulatory reform than EPA,” said Gorsuch. Almost immediately after taking office, she began mowing down that pasture by dismantling the agency’s regulatory apparatus. Gorsuch slashed budgets for research and enforcement (the latter by 45 percent); cut the number of cases the EPA referred to the Department of Justice by three-quarters; and began replacing the legal enforcement of existing environmental laws with a system based on “voluntary compliance” by industry. Her staff members held closed-door meetings with polluters and were happy to cut them slack when it came to meeting toxic cleanup deadlines. For good measure, she even oversaw a new chemical approval process designed to increase the spraying of restricted-use pesticides.
Gorsuch’s dislike of the Clean Water Act bordered on the obsessive. She took great pride in her attempts to weaken the act, publicly bragging that the book of clean-water regulations, which had been six inches thick when she started, was going to be just half an inch thick when she got through with it. Eliminating pesky public-safety rules, she said, was simply part of her job description, which she saw as demolishing and rebuilding an agency beset by “excessive regulations, burdensome paperwork for industry and government, federal-state friction, and huge costs.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the deregulatory revolution: Gorsuch went too far. In 1982, Congress began investigating her management of the $1.6 billion Superfund program, looking for documents that proved the agency had struck sweetheart cleanup deals with the polluting companies behind some of the nation’s most toxic sites. Gorsuch refused to cooperate with the investigation, claiming that the records being sought were protected under executive privilege. Less than two years after taking office under what had been such auspicious political circumstances, she found herself being cited for contempt by the House of Representatives and singled out by the editorial pages of major newspapers for “pollut[ing] the E.P.A.’s reputation for impartial administration of science and law.”
It all proved too much for the Reagan administration, which—to borrow a phrase from contemporary parlance—threw Gorsuch under the bus. As her management of the Superfund program began to take on the whiff of scandal, the Justice Department, which had been representing her in her battle with Congress, announced that it would no longer be able to defend her. In March of 1983, she tendered her resignation, which Ronald Reagan accepted immediately, albeit “with deep regret.”
By the time Gorsuch was forced out, there was already bipartisan support for her departure—in both the Republican-controlled White House and the Democrat-controlled Congress. Right now, Scott Pruitt should be asking himself why.
In November 2016, Americans didn’t vote for dirtier air, dirtier water, or more toxic chemicals in our environment. Americans of all political stripes believe that polluting industries should not be able to write their own rules regarding the messes they make or the health burdens they place on the public. Ensuring public safety and holding polluters accountable isn’t “big” government; it’s basic government. And if you don’t understand that, then you really have no business serving in government in the first place.
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