“Drain the swamp!” was one of those memorable Donald Trump campaign promises that remains unfulfilled, much like “Mexico will pay for the wall!” and “Repeal and replace Obamacare!” with “something terrific.”
Unlike the latter two promises, there’s little debate about the need to establish strong ethical standards for government. That makes Trump’s failure to keep his swamping-draining pledge — highlighted by the Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday for a former coal industry lobbyist nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency — all the more disturbing.
Nominee Andrew Wheeler became acting EPA administrator after his predecessor and former boss, Scott Pruitt, resigned in July amid a cloud of self-serving ethics scandals. Wheeler, 54, doesn’t carry Pruitt’s ethical baggage, but he has devoted himself to a disciplined rollback of environmental safeguards.
Wheeler is one of 188 former lobbyists working in the administration, according to ProPublica, and a fox-guarding-the-hen-house example of someone regulating an industry that once paid him handsomely.
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Others include the acting secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, previously an influential lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry, and EPA senior attorney Erik Baptist, who used to work as a lobbyist and lawyer for the American Petroleum Institute.
Trump replaced President Barack Obama’s ethics rules with a set he said were tougher, but which in fact allow for the liberal granting of waivers so that the swamp once again can fill with water.
Among Wheeler’s consulting duties, according to the Project on Government Oversight, was hosting a fundraiser for key Republican Sen. John Barrasso, now the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, before which Wheeler will testify Wednesday.
After more than a decade working for the Senate’s premier denier of human-caused climate change, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Wheeler joined a consulting firm working against environmental restrictions on behalf of his top client, coal magnate Robert Murray.
“He’s spent his career carrying out someone else’s agenda,” Joseph Goffman, executive director of Harvard Law School’s environmental law program, says of Wheeler.
Since Wheeler joined EPA, first as deputy and then acting administrator, the agency has worked to roll back fuel efficiency standards on vehicles, ease greenhouse-gas restrictions on coal-burning power plants and, in December, rescind regulations that reduce coal-plant release of mercury and other poisons.
Given the Republican majority in the Senate and Trump’s avid support, Wheeler’s confirmation might be a foregone conclusion. But that doesn’t mean senators can’t use the confirmation hearing to press the nominee on a variety of important issues.
After all, Wheeler isn’t a lobbyist anymore. If confirmed, he’ll be in charge of implementing environmental laws designed to protect the quality of the air Americans breathe and the water they drink.
Moreover, history will judge him for what he did — or didn’t do — to head off catastrophic impacts from human-induced climate change. A daily drumbeat of reports confirms that warming oceans, melting icecaps and rising sea levels are more likely to drown coastal swamps than to drain them.
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