January 16, 2019
By Abby Smith
Andrew Wheeler has two cases to make to senators: defending his credentials for the EPA’s top slot and explaining why he’s interviewing for the job while his agency’s doors are shut.
Wheeler, who currently serves as the Environmental Protection Agency’s acting chief, faces a Jan. 16 hearing on his nomination to permanently lead the agency just one week after President Donald Trump sent his name to the Senate—and while more than 90 percent of the EPA’s employees remain furloughed.
Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, some of whom are already critical of Wheeler’s nomination, plan to press Wheeler on the EPA’s shutdown activities—though they face an uphill battle to ultimately halt Wheeler’s path to confirmation.
Before the hearing, several senators, including ranking member Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), raised alarm that the EPA may be violating the law and its own shutdown contingency plan by using limited resources to prep Wheeler for his testimony.
Democratic lawmakers are also questioning Wheeler’s direction on what is and isn’t getting done during the shutdown.
“We have the EPA not doing critical inspections across the country at the same time you have the administration proceeding to approve new drilling permits,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a member of the panel, told reporters Jan. 15.
“Why is that an essential function? Why is damaging the environment an essential government function?” Merkley added.
The tussle over the hearing’s shutdown timing seems to have prompted some talks to slow the post-hearing process.
“I don’t see a real rush to judgment. I said as much to our chairman,” Carper told reporters Jan. 15, noting Wheeler can continue to serve for months in the EPA’s top slot while awaiting confirmation.
Carper suggested the committee’s chair, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), has agreed to “slow down a bit.”
Barrasso told reporters he worked with Carper to ensure senators will have adequate time to send and receive responses to questions for the record, “so that there’s not going to be a rush.”
That process can be time-intensive. Wheeler’s predecessor Scott Pruitt, who resigned from the EPA in July amid several ethics concerns, received hundreds of questions for the record from lawmakers after his confirmation hearing in 2017.
But Barrasso dismissed concerns about the use of EPA resources for Wheeler’s hearing. Senators have expected Wheeler’s nomination for months, and Wheeler, both an EPA and Senate committee veteran, is well prepared, Barrasso said.
The shutdown won’t dominate Wheeler’s hearing, though. Senators, both Democratic and Republican, pointed to issues on which they expect to get some clarity from Wheeler.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), for example, cited the renewable fuel standard. She said Wheeler’s statements on the biofuels law have left her generally encouraged, but she would still like to see an even stronger push from the EPA.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she is concerned Wheeler is backing off the EPA’s efforts to cut lead pollution.
“I think we want to get him on record on the commitments that he made, and we do have some real concerns,” Duckworth said.
Carper said he is looking in particular for Wheeler to say he will broker a deal on fuel economy standards that leads to a 50-state solution. The Trump administration’s current proposal would freeze federal limits at 2020 levels and attack California’s authority to set its own tailpipe greenhouse gas limits.
Wheeler has said he prefers one national fuel economy program, but Carper wants a firmer commitment.
“I’d like to see him not just pay lip service to it, but to actually work hard to make it happen,” Carper said.
Wheeler was confirmed as the EPA’s No. 2 last April by a 53-45 vote.
Republicans in the midterm elections increased their margin in the Senate to 53-47, as two of the three Democrats who supported Wheeler—Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.)—lost their re-election bids. That leaves Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as the lone Wheeler-backing Democrat left.
—With assistance from Tiffany Stecker and Dean Scott.