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Several of Donald Trump’s staff selections will begin to undergo Senate confirmation hearings in the final days leading up to the president-elect’s inauguration.
Time

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s incoming Cabinet may already have a place in history.

As Congress considers the president-elect’s picks, many have a record of outspoken skepticism of — and in some cases downright hostility to — the agencies they’ll oversee that distinguishes them from previous Cabinets, according to presidential transition experts. Some of them echo the Tea Party — credited with ushering in an era of congressional obstruction. In a 2014 interview on Fox Business News, now-Labor nominee Andrew Puzder stated: “Who says gridlock is bad? I can tell, the less Washington does the better.”

Former Texas governor Rick Perry has advocated shuttering the Department of Energy he’s slated to lead. Betsy DeVos, who would head the Education Department, is a leading proponent of voucher programs that divert taxpayer funds from public schools. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has repeatedly sued the Environmental Protection Agency and, in his official biography, describes himself as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Ben Carson has criticized Housing and Urban Development rules designed to combat segregation in housing. Puzder has fought labor rules intended to protect workers.

“It really is unprecedented, not just the degree to which some of these nominees despise the mission of the agencies or departments they’re tapped to head, but the sheer number of them,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

That applies particularly to those tapped to run agencies dealing with workers and the environment. Next week’s Senate hearings will feature nominees’ previous comments against those agencies’ missions.

Take Trump’s EPA pick, Pruitt, who has repeatedly sued the EPA over President Obama’s climate policies. A 2012 opinion piece could draw particular scrutiny for its false accusation that Obama wanted to kill the oil industry and spike gasoline prices to near $8 a gallon. Also of note: He once questioned whether the EPA had engaged in a conspiracy with environmental groups to file friendly lawsuits resulting in stricter regulations.

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Puzder, a fast food chief executive, has criticized mandatory breaks for workers; and in a keynote address two years ago, he criticized an overtime rule meant to protect workers.

Previous presidents have chosen nominees hostile to the agencies they oversee. Under Ronald Reagan, conservative Bill Bennett was “someone who really wanted to kill” the Department of Education, while Anne Gorsuch at EPA and Jim Watt at Interior came in with heavy opposition from environmental and conservation interests. The vast majority of Republican administration appointees were like George W. Bush’s picks of Christine Todd Whitman at EPA, Dirk Kempthorne at Interior and Mike Leavitt at Health and Human Services.

“These are people who are conservative, absolutely, but not opponents” of the agencies, said Hudak.


Team of disrupters

For its part, the Trump team is embracing the notion that its nominees are a “team of disrupters,” versus the “team of rivals” approach President Obama adopted in tapping Republicans to join his Cabinet.

“These highly qualified leaders are in lockstep with President-elect Trump’s plan to drain the swamp and get Washington working for America again. Each one is committed to the bold change agenda that Americans voted for in November,” the Trump transition team said in a statement.

The governing implications could be significant.

Most immediately there could be open warfare between new appointees and the army of civil servants who populate the agencies. Many of these workers, whom political scientists often call “the permanent government,” see their mission as sanctioned by Congress — and the funding it’s already appropriated. Trump and his nominees are also limited by Congress in curtailing the charter of many agencies, raising the prospect of a spike in litigation should agency heads attempt to overhaul or eliminate significant programs.

“I don’t know if it’s great for the country, but it’s great for lawyers,” said Stan Brand, a former general counsel to the U.S. House under Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, a Democrat.

Democrats are promising a rough ride for a number of nominees — though Republicans assure they have the votes to win approval for all of them. Democrats have put up flares over several nominees who’ve failed to complete the official screening process by the Office of Government Ethics. Yet, according to Brand, that is secondary to the real consternation on Capitol Hill.

“The president gets to pick whoever he wants … it’s up to him to appoint them,” he said.  “What has brought this to a head is not just the extreme wealth of the nominees, but that some of them appear to be adverse to the mission of the agencies they’re going to be running,” he said. “This is partially a fight over ideology”


Republicans control Senate

It’s unlikely Trump’s nominees will be voted down. Republicans hold a 52-seat majority in the Senate and they need 50 votes to approve a nominee. They’ve also built public relations teams to help the nominees deal with media inquiries and to provide rapid response.

Here are some of the highlights:

• Pruitt led a lawsuit by 28 states that sued Obama and the federal government over climate change-related regulations. A decision on the case is pending in federal court. Other lawsuits targeted rules to cut carbon pollution from coal-powered plants.

• According to the Daily Oklahoman, in 2012 Pruitt questioned whether the EPA had been secretly coordinating with national environmental groups to file lawsuits alleging violations of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. The same year he accused the Obama administration of wanting to “kill the oil industry” and, in an opinion piece, claimed Obama had “publicly stated goals of raising gas prices to near $8” a gallon. According to FactCheck.org, Obama never spoke of hiking gas prices to such levels.

• Puzder has been a consistent critic of National Labor Relations Board rulings, including a California law intended to prevent companies from denying workers overtime pay by classifying them as salaried and opposing minimum wage increases, which he argued would hurt small businesses.

• Carson has been critical of a fair housing rule to desegregate housing. In 2015, he wrote an opinion column slamming “government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality.”

• DeVos is a leading advocate for school vouchers, having funded free-market initiatives in both Michigan and other states, as well as efforts to limit oversight and regulation of charter schools. Comments likely to surface at her hearing include those from a 2015 speech in which she said teaching has become a “self-serving industry” and that “we don’t fire teachers enough.” DeVos was arguing that the United States should stop rewarding “seniority over effectiveness.”

Despite this history, what matters most is the approach the nominees take once in office, said Terry Sullivan, a University of North Carolina presidential historian who wrote a 2003 book on White House transitions.

President Richard Nixon also appointed some agency critics, he said. “They ‘went native’ by learning that the function of their assigned agency actually filled a gap that the economy would not fill and by learning that government agencies were filled with well educated and highly intelligent staffs,” said Sullivan.

“Nixon’s appointees were demonizing for political reasons and, like everyone else, when exposed to the facts learned something. It infuriated Nixon and it undermined his commitment to Cabinet government. I’m not sure Trump’s ideologues are like Nixon’s but they could be in for the same experience,” he said.