Almost 100 days into the Trump administration, the ultra-conservative wing of the President’s party is “fearful” they are running out of time and the President’s aggressive environmental agenda won’t get done.
That fear stems from the fact that the majority of political positions remain unfilled at the Environmental Protection Agency, with little sign that the situation is about to change. And that’s the case at many agencies government-wide.
“I don’t think they’re fully aware this is a disaster,” said one Republican, who remains close to the administration.
There have not been any presidential nominations at EPA beyond the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt. When asked about the number of political appointees who are on staff who don’t need Senate confirmation and the number of overall political positions that remain open, EPA spokesman J.P Freire told CNN: “As a policy we don’t comment on personnel issues.”
Without political appointees, tackling the complex environmental issues the President wants to change will be daunting, the Republican source said.
“You need people in place who understand the issues so that they can rewrite the rules. A career person who doesn’t agree with the administration is not going to be the best person to lead the way on this,” the source said.
“It gets worse every day,” said the source, who voted for Trump and was excited about what his presidency meant for the fate of the agency. “Even if they nominate 50 people tomorrow, they still have to get them confirmed, and that takes time. They’re just blowing it every day.”
A Democratic lobbyist who has had conversations with EPA officials agrees. “They’re doing enough to keep the lights on. They’re trying to steer the ship. It’s beginning to shift, but you only have 48 months in a term, and we’re four months in. If they don’t get an assistant administrator before September or October, they will not get anything done quickly enough to see it to completion.”
The Democratic source has spoken directly to the handful of political appointees at the agency, and says the situation isn’t lost on them. “They’re understaffed and they know it. But when you have an administration that has no political background and no prior government experience or staff and you’re trying to assemble a lifetime’s worth of expertise, they’re just never going to get there. “
There are a number of names floating around as potential hires for critical roles inside the EPA, including coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler for deputy administrator.
“You hear the names but then nothing happens,” said the Democratic source.
The Republican source echoed that sentiment: “You hear the rumors week after week circulating within the agency and circles close to the White House. The rumor is we are about to nominate so and so, but it doesn’t happen.”
Both sources say the critical roles that remain unfilled are: deputy administrator, assistant administrator for air and radiation, assistant administrator for water, assistant administrator for research and development, assistant administrator for enforcement and general counsel.
The Republican source described the staffing issue as multi-faceted. “It’s a combination of problems colliding. There’s so much distrust amongst the Trump folks that they want to avoid bringing Washington insiders into the ranks, so they’re bringing in outsiders who have no idea how to staff an administration.”
The administration’s inexperience in Washington is working against them, the source said. “They’ve never done this before so they don’t know the pace of an administration and what it’s supposed to be.”
The source added: “The mindset in Trump Tower was we won the election with 80 people on staff. We can do this on our own. We don’t need all these bureaucrats. That kind of arrogance has carried over into the administration.”
Without political appointees in place, the administration may be forced to lean heavily on the expertise and help of career employees, something that concerns the Republican source. “Right now in the agency the people who have a deep understanding of the environmental rules that the President wants to re-write is the career folks. But they in many cases are the people who support those rules. So they won’t do a good job re-writing it or undoing it. So a lot of the regulatory rollbacks are in jeopardy.”
Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy group, agreed that career professionals may not be passionate about rolling back regulations.
“Civil servants who wrote these environmental rules are dedicated to what they see is the mission and it’s not going to be easy to convince them to undo their work,” Kimmell said. “They will do it if they have to but they won’t spend nights and weekends to do it.”
Kimmell pointed out that career EPA employees did spend nights and weekends writing environmental rules like the Clean Power Plan, and it still took more than two years to complete.