COMMENTARY: Fight to replace Pruitt will be political gold for Democrats


Republicans who secretly wished for an opening at the top of the Environmental Protection Agency got it Thursday, when ethically challenged EPA Administrator Scott “Security Detail” Pruitt tendered his resignation. But this one may fall into the category of “be careful what you wish for.”

Pruitt became the subject of multiple internal investigations and external scandals, thanks to such questionable moves as spending outrageous sums on bodyguards to fend off nonexistent death threats, ordering a rule-busting $43,000 soundproof phone booth to be built in his office, and using an EPA employee to help him seek a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife.

This kind of personal misconduct cast a pall over his far-right agenda at the EPA, which reversed Obama administration initiatives on air and water pollution, climate change and other threats. Had Pruitt stuck to cozying up to executives for polluters regulated by his agency, he’d probably still be running the EPA today. That’s not the sort of sketchy behavior that gets you in trouble with many deregulatory Republicans in Washington. But no, he went much, much further – for example, by accepting an implausibly sweet deal on a Capitol Hill condo from the wife of an energy industry lobbyist.

Now, President Donald Trump has the chance to nominate someone ethically upstanding to run the EPA into irrelevance. No more taint of venality – just a hopelessly cramped reading of federal environmental statutes and a whole lot of faith in the free market to keep industry from externalizing the costs of its toxic operations.

Assuming the president can find such a person to finish the work Pruitt started, environmentalists might grow nostalgic for the days when the administration’s policies on climate change, clean air and clean water were associated with a human ethical lapse.

But there’s a bright side of Pruitt’s departure for those who want environmental laws enforced and climate change taken seriously. Like the battle over Trump’s next Supreme Court nominee, the fight over Pruitt’s replacement could energize voters who oppose the administration’s environmental policies.

If the EPA job remains open on Election Day, the next Senate is likely to decide who replaces Pruitt. And if Democrats pick up three seats – admittedly unlikely, given the states with senators running for election – they’ll hold the fate of Trump’s nominee in their hands.

Unless Trump moves with the sort of alacrity to replace Pruitt that he has to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the November election will clearly be a referendum on environmental protection. And while there are plenty of other issues out there (most notably, health care and insurance premiums), a vacancy at the EPA subject to Senate confirmation would present the kind of stark, binary choice for voters that political activists dream about.

Look forward to lots of 30-second ads featuring smokestacks belching out black clouds and pipes dumping sludge into rivers.

Jon Healey is deputy editorial page editor of The Los Angeles Times.