A new president, a new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and a scandal over frozen environmental regulations — it happened in March of 2001, when Christine Todd Whitman, President George W. Bush’s first EPA head, blocked a plan to tighten restrictions on arsenic levels in drinking water. The new regulation — which lowered the legal amount from 50 parts per billion to 10, bringing the United States into line with standards set by the European Union and the World Health Organization — was established during the last days of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Whitman stopped it a week before it would have gone into effect, saying that complying with the regulation represented a big burden on small communities. The issue would need further study and public comment, she told the press.
A little more than seven months later, however, Whitman enacted the Clinton regulation with no changes. Today, the EPA website includes a quote from her that says, “the 10 ppb protects public health based on the best available science and ensures that the cost of the standard is achievable.”
It is normal for incoming administrations to temporarily slow down or halt work at federal agencies as political appointees take on their new positions and become acquainted with the issues and bureaucracies they’ve inherited. President Barack Obama did the same thing in 2009. But the Trump administration — by its own admission — has expanded the scope of that traditional chill-out period, especially for the EPA, freezing grants and contracts and telling the press that scientists may have to undergo a case-by-case review of their work before it can be released to the public. (In an email, an EPA spokesperson said the agency hoped to have the review of most grants and contracts completed by Friday.)
The difference between the Trump administration and past presidents on this issue is one of degrees, said Cary Coglianese, a professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School and director of its program on regulation. But the White House’s moves have sparked fears both inside and outside the EPA that the administration will politicize science and deprioritize public health. Experts say these are reasonable concerns. In particular, Coglianese said, it will be important to see if the current restrictions are followed up with budget cuts and major reorganizations of staff and funds. But he and other experts also said that what is happening now should be considered in the context of history. There, they say, we can see a pattern: Administrations that try to control and distort EPA science end up paying a penalty in political backlash.
That certainly happened in the case of the arsenic regulations, said Robert Percival, professor of law and director of the environmental law program at the University of Maryland. Whitman was more moderate on the environment than the Bush administration as a whole — especially on the issue of climate change. But her reversal probably had less to do with that fact than with the public outcry, Percival said. “I don’t think it would have made any difference whether it was Whitman or [Trump administration EPA nominee Scott] Pruitt in office at the beginning of the Bush administration,” he said. Percival pointed to hard-hitting TV ads on the arsenic issue. “It was brutal,” he said, “Ultimately, Whitman was genuinely convinced that the regulation should go through, but even Pruitt might have succumbed to the outcry.”
That same kind of pushback by the public and political opponents is also evident in other big moment in EPA history when the agency was at odds with its own leadership. President Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch (later Anne Burford) was involved in a plan to eliminate or reduce restrictions on lead in gasoline, going so far as to tell one refiner that the existing regulations would not be enforced. The backlash against this was so big that it ended up laying the groundwork for the phasing out of lead from gas entirely, Percival said. Gorsuch was forced to resign just 22 months into her tenure after a series of scandals.1
Neither of these cases is a perfect analog for what’s happening under the new Trump administration. Whitman had a very different track record and perspective on environmental issues than Pruitt does. For instance, she clashed with the Bush administration by supporting the Kyoto Protocol and calling climate change a serious issue. Pruitt, meanwhile, said at his recent confirmation hearing that he believes climate change is happening but equivocated on how much human behavior is to blame. Pruitt has more in common with Gorsuch, in terms of ideology, Percival said, but that analogy also breaks down because during the Reagan administration, the House of Representatives was controlled by the Democrats, who held regular oversight hearings, without which Gorsuch’s decisions and behavior might have been less apparent.
But these stories also demonstrate how attempting to curtail the work of the EPA can backfire. By placing temporary restrictions on the EPA that are stronger and more expansive than normal, the Trump administration is making a symbolic gesture to its base, Coglianese said. But it’s also taking a risk. Why might that risk be worth it?
Neither the Trump administration nor the EPA responded to interview requests, but the answer to that could be found in the The Washington Post’s ongoing tally of how many political appointees the Trump administration has nominated. Out of 690 positions that require Senate confirmation, only 31 nominations have been made. This is always a slow process, Coglianese said, but the Trump administration is behind even that normal crawl. Tighter-than-normal temporary restrictions are more important for an administration when its nomination process is proceeding at a rate that is slower-than-normal, he told me. How the administration handles the tensions inherent in the process of setting up a government will be very important. “Different leaders and managers have different levels of competency and success,” Coglianese said. “This is the first management challenge that an incoming administration faces.”