The Problem with Pruitt

AARON BENNETT: The most corrupt cabinet official of the Trump administration – and arguably ever – has vacated his post as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

After spending millions of taxpayer money on personal security, spending wastefully on lavish accommodations, abusing agency resources for personal gain, leveraging his position to find his wife and friends jobs, getting into bed with Big Oil, coal, and other industries he is charged to regulate, and more, Scott Pruitt has finally resigned. But while watchdogs declare victory, I’m left wondering why it took so long for someone whose graft and corruption was so plainly on display to get booted from office.

This, in my view, is the key takeaway from Pruitt’s tenure: the rules of the Shame Game in Washington have fundamentally changed.

In a simpler time, public officials could be forced out for a single scandalous story ranging from impropriety to poor management of a policy to abuse of power. This wasn’t that long ago – Bill Clinton fired Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders in 1994 after she angered the religious right while pushing for sex education. Just last summer, President Trump dismissed Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price for his frequent use of government planes. Members of Congress have resigned from everything ranging from breaking campaign finance to sexual harassment to simply violating the trust of their constituents. The common denominator in all of these cases? Public outcry created enough pressure to convince decision-makers right the wrong.

While this was the eventual outcome with Pruitt, what makes his case significant? It took him far too many scandals to finally get removed from office.

Under the normal rules of politics as we knew it, perhaps the $50-a-night condo rental from a lobbyist whose husband had business before the EPA may have triggered enough of a media firestorm to force him out. Maybe just the $4 million of taxpayer dollars wasted on excessive security and travel accommodations would have been enough. Even the blatant abuse of power in trying to find his wife a job at Chick-fil-A might have done the trick. All of these scandals should have created enough pressure to shame him out of office.

But he survived all of these and lasted nearly 18 months in his job. The danger, then, of the Pruitt precedent is that lawmakers and officials are now learning that – if shameless enough – they can weather almost any scandal.

Take, for example, the hypocrisy of Senator Mitch McConnell walking back his refusal to hold Supreme Court confirmation hearings during an election year – simply because a member of his own party is now in charge. Or Representative Jim Jordan dodging allegations that he knew of sexual misconduct in his locker rooms as an Ohio State wrestling coach. They each have a good shot at weathering these storms through pure shamelessness.

Besides elections, the Shame Game – public outcry and media scrutiny – is the only way we as citizens can ensure our government acts responsibly. It’s how we levy the consequences for bad behavior.

With this mechanism now very publicly broken, it’s fair to fear what the future may hold without the ability to hold our government accountable.

Aaron Bennett