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Lawmakers Ask EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Tough Questions Amid Ethics Allegations


We're going to turn now to NPR's Scott Horsley, who was listening to Scott Pruitt's testimony today. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This was described by some observers as make-or-break hearings for the EPA administrator. Which way did they go?

HORSLEY: I don't think Scott Pruitt made his case today, but these hearings probably didn't break him either. As you all pointed out, the storyline throughout the hearing was largely partisan. It was mostly Democrats on the attack and many Republicans, especially those from big fossil fuel states like Texas and West Virginia, rising to Pruitt's defense. That probably works to the administrator's advantage. Scott Pruitt has tried to paint all these ethical criticisms as really designed to undermine his policy agenda, rolling back regulations, especially those from the Obama administration. And that's an agenda that, you know, President Trump campaigned on. And as Trump told reporters earlier this month, it's an idea that a lot of his voters still support.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just left coal and energy country. They love Scott Pruitt.

HORSLEY: Now, that was a few weeks ago. In recent days, the White House officials have been a little more cautious in their defense of Scott Pruitt. They said they're looking into some of these questions that have come up - no word yet on how satisfied the president and his staffers are with Pruitt's answers today.

SHAPIRO: How much did Pruitt address these ethical questions that have been raised about his behavior?

HORSLEY: He began the hearings by saying he had nothing to hide. But as you heard, there was actually a lot of bobbing and weaving as lawmakers tried to pin him down on some of these issues. You heard him say he didn't know about the soundproof phone booth costing $43,000. He pushed that off on staffers. He said his first-class travel and his round-the-clock security detail were dictated by security officials.

He also said that his sweetheart lease was OK'd by an EPA ethics officer, although he later conceded that only happened after reporters started asking questions about it. And it turned out the ethics officer didn't have all the information. All these excuses drew an exasperated response from Democratic Congressman Peter Welch of Vermont.


PETER WELCH: I've been listening to a lot of the answers, and the answers are somebody else knows it. And it's really starting to seem like there's something on your desk with a motto that says, the buck stops nowhere.

HORSLEY: Now, Pruitt did take partial responsibility with regard to the pay raises that were given to two people who followed him to the EPA from Oklahoma. Pruitt says he told his chief of staff to authorize those raises, but he insisted he didn't know the dollar amounts or that the White House had nixed the pay hikes. Now, that's different from what Pruitt had earlier told Fox News when he insisted he was unaware of the pay raises until they report it in the media, initially by The Atlantic.

SHAPIRO: Apart from the ethics questions, there were a lot of policy questions, including about the EPA's new scientific rule. Tell us about that.

HORSLEY: The EPA has proposed a rule that would limit the kind of scientific studies that it can use to formulate environmental policy. It would basically say the agency can only use studies if all the underlying data is made publicly available. Pruitt defends this as a step towards greater transparency, but groups like the American Association for the Advancement of Science have criticized the proposal, saying it would effectively set aside some of the best science.

Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz of California, who's a doctor, says the proposal would prevent the EPA from using epidemiological studies, for example, because those often include non-public personal data. And Ruiz says that would prevent the agency from regulating some hazardous pollutants.


RAUL RUIZ: You have done this to allow the - your rich and powerful corporate friends to create more pollution in order to increase profit at the expense of the common good.

HORSLEY: Now, other lawmakers like Republican Kevin Cramer defended the EPA policy. Cramer, by the way, like Pruitt, questions the scientific consensus behind climate change.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley, thank you so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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