Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt emerged unscathed from more than three rounds of questions posed during a seven-hour hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday.
The committee, which has eleven Republicans, nine Democrats, and an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, convened to consider Pruitt’s confirmation as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The unflappable Pruitt calmly and factually responded to the Democrat members of the committee, whose questioning style fluctuated between stemwinding lectures and constant interruptions of the nominee as he attempted to answer their questions.
In his opening statement, Pruitt articulated the five principles by which he will be guided in his conduct as administrator of the EPA.
“If confirmed, I would lead the EPA with the following principles in mind,” he began.
“First, we must reject as a nation the false paradigm that if you’re pro-energy, you’re anti-environment and if you’re pro-environment, you’re anti-energy. I utterly reject that narrative,” Pruitt said.
“Next, we should celebrate the great progress we’ve made as a nation since the inception of the EPA and the laws that have been passed by this body, but recognize that we have much work to do,” he continued.
“Third, rule of law matters,” he said, adding:
Process matters. Regulators are supposed to make things regular, to fairly and equitably enforce the rules and not pick winners and losers. A regulator should not be for or against any sector of our economy. Instead, a regulator ought to follow the law in setting up the rules so that those who are regulated can plan, allocate resources to meet the standards, versus operating in a state of uncertainty and duress.
“Fourth, federalism matters. It matters because Congress says so, and because we need to achieve good outcomes as a nation for air and water quality. We need the partnership of the states to achieve that,” he continued.
“Fifth, public participation is key. We need to hear all voices as we make decisions in behalf of our country with respect to environmental laws,” the Oklahoma Attorney General concluded.
Committee Chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) and the other Republican members uniformly praised Pruitt and, in their questioning, allowed him to elaborate on specific policies relevant to their states, as well as his general principles.
The Democrats, in contrast, led by Ranking Member Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), took a more combative approach, treating the nominee in the manner more typically seen in prosecuting attorneys cross examining witnesses for the defense.
Despite a number of confrontational provocations by the Democrats, Pruitt maintained his professional cool.
In addition to Carpenter, the Democrat members of the committee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) consistently interrupted Pruitt when he attempted to answer their questions.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) was probing in his questions, but treated Pruitt with a level of professionalism and respect that eluded most of his Democratic colleagues on the committee.
Cardin asked a significant and relevant question of Pruitt concerning the definition of “navigable waters,” a key element in the controversial Waters of the United States (WOTUS) regulation recently promulgated by the EPA, whose enforcement has been stayed by a federal court.
Republicans on the committee pointed out many years of EPA overreach as one of many reasons they welcomed President-elect Trump’s pick of Pruitt to run the agency.
“For the past eight years the EPA has given no indication it cares at all about the economic factors,” Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) noted.
“This response evidences the continued hostility of the EPA to its mission established by Congress,” she added.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) noted that “folks are frustrated with the EPA and their ‘gotcha’ mentality.”
“This type of culture that was created under the Obama administration has no place here.” she added
“There’s a lot of anger, even fear, about this agency throughout the country,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said.
“Cooperative federalism was directed by Congress,” Pruitt responded.
“That’s not a term invented by Scott Pruitt. You are focusing on what Congress said,” Sullivan observed, and Pruitt agreed, noting that “the states are not mere vessels of federal will.”
“To restore the relationship that Congress has directed, the role of the states, in improving our environment,” Pruitt added
“I think the EPA needs to provide more assistance to the states . . . Those Regional Administrators need to be seen as partners, not adversaries” Pruitt said.
“The EPA has not acted within the framework provided by Congress . . . it’s Congress that gives those instruction to EPA. EPA is an agency, not a legislative body,” the Oklahoma Attorney General added.
Sen. Markey pressed Pruitt on global warming, which he said President-elect Trump has called a hoax.
“Do you agree that global warming is a hoax?” Markey asked.
“I do not,” Pruitt responded.
Markey then attempted to get Pruitt to recuse himself from all matters that may arise at the EPA related to several lawsuits in which, as Oklahoma Attorney General, he was a plaintiff.
“Will you agree to recuse yourself not just for one year but entirety of the time you are administrator of EPA?” Markey asked.
“I will recuse as directed by EPA counsel,” Pruitt told Markey.
Other Democrats had specific points they wanted to make in their questioning of Pruitt.
“I need you also to be worried about human health,” Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) told Pruitt. “I need you to feel it as if your children, the ones sitting behind you, are the ones in the emergency room.”
“Ninety-seven percent of the scientists who wrote articles in peer reviewed journals said human activity is the primary reason for climate change,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), told Pruitt.
“My personal opinion is immaterial,” Pruitt told Sanders when asked if he agreed with that assessment.
After the end of each five minute attack on Pruitt by Democratic senators, Chairman Barrasso entered an article or report favorable to Pruitt into the record.
“Yes or no,” Ranking Member Sen. Carper demanded of Pruitt in several questions he posed, interrupting the Oklahoma Attorney General with another question or repeating the original question before Pruitt reached half a dozen words in his response.
Throughout the hearing, Carper tried to paint Pruitt as unresponsive to his legitimate questions sent by mail earlier.
“Why haven’t you responded to the fifty questions I sent you on December 28?” Carper asked rhetorically in his first and final round of questioning.
Finally, just as the hearing came to a close, Pruitt told Carper on the record what the Democrat senator from Delaware may well have known all along.
“On advice of the chair,” Pruitt explained, “I was asked to answer those questions after these hearings,” Pruitt told Carper.
Newly-elected California Sen. Harris used the same “yes or no” framing of questions of Pruitt, who until just a month ago was her fellow state attorney general.
Rhode Island’s Sen. Whitehouse, who once served as his state’s attorney general, vigorously prosecuted his case against Pruitt, to little effect.
“Excess carbon dioxide from carbon fuel emissions is turning our seas more acid,” he lectured Pruitt.
“I see nothing in your career that you would care at all about our Rhode Island shell fishermen,” he continued.
“I see nothing in your record that you would give a mom any comfort” that you care about her child’s asthma, he continued.
He then had aides bring out a huge chart showing various energy companies and told Pruitt, “Your Super PAC took fossil fuel donations as well.”
“Did you solicit any of that funding?” Whitehouse wanted to know.
“I attended fundraising events,” Pruitt responded, adding. “I actually did not start or initiate the Rule of Law Defense Fund.”
Sen. Booker was eager to blame Pruitt for asthma problems among children across America.
“Do you know how many kids in Oklahoma have asthma?” Booker asked.
“More than 111,000 people in Oklahoma, which is more than ten percent of the kids… have asthma,” the junior senator from New Jersey said.
“How many letters did you write to the EPA about this crisis?” Booker wanted to know.
Chairman Barasso adjourned the hearing at 4:55 p.m. eastern, six hours and fifty-five minutes, three full rounds, and a fourth partial round of questioning after the hearings began at 10:00 a.m. eastern.
Pruitt’s allies outside the hearing weighed in with statements of support to the press throughout the day.
“I urge swift Senate confirmation of my friend, Scott Pruitt, as administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Anyone who wants a smart, principled and highly experienced person to run the EPA should support Scott’s confirmation,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a statement released on Wednesday.
“I’ve been in the trenches with Scott. I’ve witnessed his passion for the rule of law. I know that he is highly qualified for the position. He will also reinforce the EPA’s core mission and be a friend to the Mountain State,” Morrisey added.