Roundtable – The Pruitt Scandals

The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on April 8, 2018.

 

Tom Rich, Editor-in-Chief

Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s discussion of news and events. This was yet another full-to-the-brim week, but the piece of news that jumped out to us was the revelation of corruption and waste by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. First-class flights, large security teams during his off hours, lavish spending on perks – Pruitt hasn’t exactly drained his part of the swamp. First question for the panel: what’s the significance here? Part of a pattern, or evidence of something new going on?

 

David Schmitz, Junior Managing Editor

Oh, it’s certainly nothing new for Pruitt, Trump, Republicans, or even Democrats. It’s only at a level rarely revealed.

 

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor

Absolutely part of the pattern. Pruitt is basically the Koch’s pick for the EPA, with all that implies. He is there to weaken and undermine everything he can, and doing a damn good job. The president currently has faith in him, so check back in 24 hours, but what he is doing is no surprise. He’s just particularly brazen

 

David Spitzley, Contributing Writer

I think the pattern is less about corruption than an incomprehension of the meaning of public service. Ben Carson is probably closer to the baseline here than Pruitt. I don’t think that anybody is calling him corrupt as such, but his sense that working for the public might entail putting up with IKEA furnishings, or more generally that yes, Mr. millionaire, you’ll have to fly coach unless you want to pay for it yourself, just never occurs to them.

 

Tom

I think that’s a really strong point: you don’t see guys like Mattis and Kelly doing this sort of thing. The profligate spenders that I can recall are Ben Carson, Tom Price, and now Pruitt. It’s the problem with coming from worlds where the optics aren’t that important to an office where the optics really matter and there’s a much bigger spotlight on you. There are a lot of weakness to the “bring in outsiders!” theory, but the fact that they don’t necessarily know when they shouldn’t do a thing, even though they technically can, is a big one.

 

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor

I want to push back on some of what you guys are saying. My Unified Theory of the Trump Admin is that it’s a kleptocracy excused because of policy. The financial shenanigans that these people are perpetrating are them understanding properly that from Trump on down it’s feeding time at the trough–that because they sometimes deliver on Republican policy priorities, Congressional GOP leaders give them cover to fill their pockets. And they also all know that at some point, whether through Mueller or the midterms or 2020 or just Trump firing them capriciously, that this isn’t going to last, and so they should enrich themselves as best they can before the gravy train reaches its terminus. This is a story about bad people getting away with doing bad things by doing worse things (in Pruitt’s case, his best impersonation of a Captain Planet villain) because the entire party is rotten. And I believe we’ve barely scratched the surface on all the ways Trump and his cabinet have turned this country’s government into a machine for personal profit.

 

Christo

The thing is, when Pruitt did have to pay for it himself, he did fly coach. I think ascribing ignorance is giving them too much credit. They know exactly what they are doing, and they are scraping as much money as they can along the way. It’s not that they don’t understand they are public servants, they just don’t care. I agree with Josh. They know they are on borrowed time, and just taking what they can get.

 

Tom

That’s fair. So given that Trump says he has confidence in Pruitt, Pruitt will probably be out in short order. The medium term solution, obviously, is to vote in a better President who’ll make better picks for agency heads. But in the long term, do you guys see a structural problem allowing this kind of behavior? Do we need better watchdogs and rules on high-level travel and spending, or do people at that level need some flexibility, and we just need to be careful not to let bad actors get there?

 

Josh

I think it’s both. You need better people in there, not just because a better president is going to pick less corrupt agency heads, but because they’ll set the tone for enforcing the ethics rules that are already there. The Obama era featured little to no corruption of this nature because they had an ethics czar who laid out the rules and Obama ensured that everybody had to adhere to those rules. So it’s most important to elect, you know, a fish head that isn’t rotten, so to speak. If the American people are going to continue to elect terrible people, yes, we also need to codify more of those ethics rules into law. But a lot of them ARE law, like the emoluments clause, or the law against public officials campaigning or promoting their private businesses, and those laws are simply not being enforced, either by a lax executive branch or a permissive GOP Congress. More laws won’t necessarily increase enforcement–you have to put control in the hands of people who won’t abuse it. Ultimately no system of government can prevent corruption as long as the corrupt hold the power.

 

Christo

We need a government that is willing to be an actual government. Until conservatives are willing to acknowledge the federal government’s legitimacy (waiting on…. at least 156 years) our government will always be undermined, weaker, and less effective than it should be. And completely vulnerable to this kind of thing. Of course, one solution to that is getting more people to vote, but that isn’t a structural protection either.

 

Tom

So Pruitt is a prominent example of a bad agency head, but another, less-remarked-upon problem of this administration are the many unfilled positions. Hundreds of high-level jobs remain unfilled, some without even a nominee. How does that problem link up with the Pruitts and Prices plaguing D.C. right now?

 

Dave Schmitz

Well, it does give cover to those that are in place because you have far fewer possible canaries in the coal mine. It also allows Trump to try the tactic of blaming Democrats for the inefficiencies of government even though it truly is not their place to even nominate some of these and they have little power to slow things down for those that are nominated.

 

David Spitzley

I think the empty halls both leave the ignorant but honest at the mercies of their privileged background (“what, it’s just $10 grand for a table?”), while leaving nobody to call Shenanigans when somebody with a larcenous heart goes for the petty cash.

 

Josh

As always with this admin, it’s a combination of malice and incompetence. Witness Trump railing against “Democrats” for blocking nominations that he hasn’t even submitted. I’m sure some of it is just a basic failure to captain the ship of government, but some of it is also individual agencies trying to shrink. Although Pruitt and others have claimed that they want less waste and more efficiency, the gross expenditures, from Pruitt’s absurd security measures to Tillerson’s $12 million in consultant’s fees, put the lie to those claims, and demonstrate that they simply want to destroy the civil service in any way they can. That’s what happens when your Cabinet is made up of people who hate the agencies they’re now tasked with running–most especially Pruitt, who made his name suing the EPA that he now runs. In other words, most of these vacancies are Working as Intended–features, not bugs.

 

Christo

As a reminder, Pruitt was AG of Oklahoma, so it’s not like he doesn’t know what he shouldn’t be doing.

 

David Spitzley

The flip side is that the utter chaos of Trump’s administration has also constrained the hiring pool to such an extent that they’re largely down to the clueless (like Carson) and the opportunistic corrupt (like almost everybody else hitting the headlines).

 

Tom

As usual in the Roundtable, we find there are multiple, mutually reinforcing awful things working together to create this delightful moment in history. So let’s take a step back for a moment. The solution to Trump himself is, first, to vote him out in 2020, and, second, to vote in a Congress that will restrain him this coming November. But these agency heads are somewhat insulated from the public. Aside from voting in a Congress that will investigate wrongdoing and enforce laws and norms, what avenue do citizens have to constrain bad behavior by Trump administration officials?

 

Christo

Well that’s the problem. We don’t actually have much ability to constrain their actions(by design, otherwise they’d never actually be able to do anything). This is why voting in competent leaders is important, and not voting during an election is a spectacularly bad idea. Voting is what the populace has. It is their tool for a political voice.

 

Josh

Voting is important, but so is continuing to expose and reject the behavior. We know that Trump will get rid of people who take up too much of the news cycle, people whom the GOP decides aren’t worth it (so continuing to pressure Congress is also useful), etc. Some of these people also do feel shame, or, barring that, are unwilling to endure constant media scrutiny and public disfavor. These people are not invincible, and can be shamed, hounded, or pressured out of office. The only failure here would be to allow these stories to get lost in the shuffle, to send the message that we don’t care about who uses taxpayer money to fly first class or takes lobbyist gifts in exchange for protecting polluters. Democracy does work if you show you care.

 

Christo

The problem here is that as we mentioned, Pruitt is doing exactly what Republicans want to the EPA. They aren’t going to be moved by more revelations, because they are there to play interference and stop anyone from stopping Pruitt. So exposing does so much, but only in the context of making people vote.

The fact that Climate Change is a world threatening issue is its own separate monumental issue

 

Josh

Ultimately we can hope that the weight of scandal grows great enough that the GOP decide that a less corrupt anti-environmentalist would be more effective in the role. And anyway, as you say, talking about the issue also inspires voting, so it’s all win-win.

 

David Spitzley

I want to reinforce the shame angle. All of these folks, particularly the wealthiest, have relatively small peer groups, and many work in financial or other fields where personal trust matters. If we make their names toxic in public, it may eventually impact their personal lives enough that they’ll bail.

 

Tom

Long road ahead back to functional government, but there are meaningful steps to take along the way. We’re just about at our time, everyone; final thoughts?

 

Christo

We need to keep the pressure on, the stakes are too high to keep our eye off the prize. We all need to vote not just because of Trump, but because the entire administration is rotten to the core. Government needs to work for us, or else it’s going to work against us

 

Dave Schmitz

It is absolutely going to be a slog bringing function and trust to government work. I have my misgivings that it can be done in a timely enough manner before the next populist jackass comes in to scrape the barrel again. I’ll vote for better, more perfect government and I’ll push everyone I know in that direction as well. But we can’t forget to do it in every election, no matter how insignificant it may feel. The local dog catcher needs to be accountable so they don’t move up in government doing all the same tricks that Pruitt has been to line their pockets as well.

 

Josh

David is right in that good government starts locally. If Pruitt hadn’t been able to make a name for himself in Oklahoma, where it seems he may have done some of the same sorts of corrupt actions that he’s done in Washington, then this wouldn’t be happening. But my takeaway from this situation is that, as much as we need to stand against corruption in government, it’s also the case that money can be recovered. Job vacancies can be filled. Corrupt leaders can be disciplined and replaced. What can’t be undone is the policy damage this administration is doing, particularly to the environment, by sanctioning the use of poisonous chemicals, by defending businesses that pollute and dump toxic waste, and by working counter to efforts to fight climate change. Turning down the global thermostat may not be possible, and every day of delay that Pruitt adds will have a horrific cost at the end of this process. As I often say when closing out these roundtables, November can’t come fast enough.

 

Tom

And, as always, we come back to our recurrent theme: vote like Puff Daddy was serious when he said “vote or die,” and he knows where you live. That’s it for the Roundtable this week. Thanks as always, everyone, for a lively conversation!

 

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