Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, appearing at two House hearings on April 26, faced criticism about the agency’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget request and also was grilled about controversies surrounding his management and use of agency resources.
Testifying before the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees EPA spending, Pruitt heard legislators from both parties push back against proposed cuts. Subcommittee chairman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) noted that the $6.14-billion 2019 request is down about $1.9 billion from 2018. “While some reductions may be in order, cuts of this magnitude put important programs at risk,” Calvert said. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) hit harder, calling the 2019 budget “reckless, irresponsible and unrealistic.”
Calvert and several other panel members focused on proposed cuts to the EPA’s prime water-infrastructure account, its state and tribal assistance grants. The 2019 budget seeks $2.9 billion for the program, down 16% from the 2018 appropriation. Calvert said such reductions will harm states’ and tribes’ ability to comply with statutory requirements and address serious health and environmental concerns.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) opposed the cutbacks, noting that the committee will “always be pretty aggressive in pushing back on cuts in those [water infrastructure] areas” because “that’s not federal bureaucracy, that’s money going directly to the people we represent.” Rep. Michael Simpson (R-Idaho) said states and tribes face a backlog of more than $1 trillion in wastewater and drinking-water infrastructure maintenance.
Rather than defend the proposed budget, Pruitt said he is committed to the water grant program and seemed to signal that he would welcome congressional opposition to the cutbacks.
Lawmakers took issue with other proposed reductions that would affect their areas. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) highlighted a request to slash the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to $30 million, from $300 million. Pruitt said he had a positive view of the program and had expressed that in administration discussions.
Several subcommittee members raised concerns about Pruitt’s stewardship of taxpayer dollars in light of recent accusations about his travel and administrative expenses, including use of first-class travel for what Pruitt cited as security reasons and the purchase of a $43,000 privacy booth in his office. “In just one year as EPA administrator, you have violated the public trust by abusing EPA resources and taxpayer dollars,” McCollum said.
Earlier that day, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee quizzed Pruitt about the controversies. The panel’s top Democrat, Frank Pallone (N.J.), called Pruitt “unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust.” Full committee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said Republicans and Democrats “have some serious questions about the management and operations of the agency.” Walden said that the allegations “are too persistent to ignore.”
Pruitt termed many of the accusations “half-truths” and “so twisted they do not resemble reality.” He said responsibility for making changes “rests with me and no one else,” but later laid blame on staffers for the travel expenses, privacy booth and approval of raises for two EPA employees.
Pruitt said, “Let’s have no illusions about what’s really going on here—those who attack the EPA and attack me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president’s agenda and undermine this administration’s priorities.” He added, “I’m simply not going to let that happen.”