When my organization opposed the confirmation of Scott Pruitt as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year, we believed his policies would endanger America’s kids.
But even we didn’t know his legacy would be almost as much about inspiring cynicism as about increasing pollution.
When Pruitt first took office, we knew he was an ambitious ideologue for weaker environmental protections, and far too close to lobbyists. But he seemed, at least, to be focused on his public mission as he defined it.
It turns out, we were too optimistic about Scott Pruitt.
A litany of ethics violations
His actions at the EPA, and what has now been revealed about his past in Oklahoma, show a man who believes public office is an opportunity to live a more lavish lifestyle.
He sees favor-trading with lobbyists as the way government should operate – whether it’s apparently taking a $100,000 discount on a house from a telecom lobbyist, or using connections to get his electricity turned on before other citizens in a blackout. Or leasing a deeply discounted Washington condo from the family of a lobbyist as they discuss official EPA business.
All of this reinforces popular pessimism about government and politics that, ironically, helped Donald Trump get to the White House. Pruitt is now making things worse.
Not your typical public servant
Our EPA chief is perfect fodder for the easy negativity of political commentators and late-night comedians. His corruptions, small and large, are executed with such clumsy obviousness they would never be let out of the writers’ room on Scandal or House of Cards.
It’s all deeply frustrating because Pruitt is actually the exception, not the rule. His predecessors, under Democratic and Republican presidents, were almost all honorable, humble and capable public servants.
Most EPA administrators, and most public servants, are nothing like Pruitt.
Pruitt took over from Gina McCarthy, an honest, direct and public-spirited expert in her field who worked for Republican governors and a Democratic president. Most EPA administrators, and most public servants, are nothing like Scott Pruitt.
There has, of course, always been some level of cynicisms about government, and there’s no question it has grown in recent decades. But there is a difference between imperfect institutions and wholesale disregard for ethical behavior.
Pruitt gives the worst cynics all the ammunition they need to abandon principle and, remarkably, some people at the top still don’t seem to care.
As Congress ignores infractions, Americans watch
In Congress, many members are straining to look the other way as Pruitt’s ethical transgressions continue. They can’t seem to hear questions about the lobbyist’s condo, the misuse of public funds or the appointees brought directly from lobbying groups.
And they fail to see that in a democracy you can’t ignore the behavior of public officials in an attempt to get the policy outcomes you want – you only undermine citizens’ faith in government.
Pruitt’s actions have also been tolerated by his boss, whose list of ethical transgressions seems nearly endless and may help explain why he’s allowed Pruitt to stay in office.
The question now is how badly the corruption, opportunism and infractions of the Trump administration – and subsequent neglect by many in Congress – will further erode public trust in our government.
The good news is that many young people have also chosen to channel their frustration into activism. From the Defend Our Future college students working for a healthier climate, to the March for Our Lives high school kids pushing for rational gun laws, some young people are – thankfully – spurning the example of their elders.
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