Trump’s Cabinet is his team of disrupters at agencies they’ve battled – USA TODAY
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.
WASHINGTON â Donald Trumpâs incoming Cabinet may already have a place in history.
As Congress considers the president-electâs picks, many have a record of outspoken skepticism ofÂ âÂ and in some cases downright hostility to âÂ the agencies theyâll oversee that distinguishes them from previous Cabinets, according to presidential transition experts. Some of them echo the Tea PartyÂ âÂ credited with ushering in an era of congressional obstruction. InÂ a 2014 interview on Fox Business News, now-Labor nominee Andrew Puzder stated: âWho says gridlock is bad? I can tell, the less Washington does the better.â
Former Texas governor Rick Perry has advocatedÂ shuttering the Department of Energy heâs slated to lead. Betsy DeVos, who would head the Education Department, is a leading proponent of voucher programs that divert taxpayer fundsÂ from public schools. Oklahoma Attorney GeneralÂ Scott Pruitt has repeatedly sued the Environmental Protection Agency and, in his official biography, describes himself as a âleading advocate against the EPAâs activist agenda.â Ben Carson has criticized Housing and Urban Development rules designed to combat segregation in housing.Â Puzder has fought labor rules intended to protect workers.
âIt really is unprecedented, not just the degree to which some of these nominees despise the mission of the agencies or departments theyâre tapped to head, but the sheer number of them,â 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 Trumpâs EPAÂ pick, Pruitt, whoÂ hasÂ repeatedly sued the EPA over President Obamaâs climate policies. A 2012 opinion pieceÂ could draw particular scrutiny for its false accusation that Obama wanted to kill the oil industry and spikeÂ 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.
Puzder, a fast food chief executive, has criticized mandatory breaks for workers; and in a keynote addressÂ two years ago, he criticized an overtime rule meant to protect workers.
Previous presidents haveÂ chosen nominees hostile to the agencies they oversee. Under Ronald Reagan, conservative Bill Bennett was âsomeone who really wanted to killâ the Department of Education, while Anne Gorsuch at EPAÂ and Jim Watt at InteriorÂ came in with heavy opposition from environmental and conservation interests. The vast majority of Republican administration appointees were like George W. Bush’s picks ofÂ Christine Todd Whitman at EPA, Dirk Kempthorne at InteriorÂ and Mike Leavitt at Health and Human Services.
âThese are people who are conservative, absolutely, but not opponentsâ 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,â versus the âteam of rivalsâ 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 âthe permanent government,â see their mission as sanctioned by Congress âÂ and the funding itâs 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.
âI donât know if itâs great for the country, but itâs great for lawyers,â said Stan Brand, a former general counsel to the U.S. House under Speaker Thomas âTipâ OâNeill, a Democrat.
Democrats are promising a rough ride for a number of nominees â though Republicans assure they have the votes to win approval for all of them. Democrats have put up flares over several nominees whoâve 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.
âThe president gets to pick whoever he wants … itâs up to him to appoint them,â he said.Â âWhat 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 theyâre going to be running,â he said. âThis is partially a fight over ideologyâ
Republicans control Senate
Itâs unlikely Trumpâs nominees will be voted down. Republicans hold a 52-seat majority in the Senate and they need 50 votes to approve a nominee. Theyâve also built public relations teams to help the nominees deal with media inquiries and to provide rapid response.
Here are some of the highlights:
â¢ PruittÂ 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 toÂ cut carbon pollution from coal-powered plants.
â¢ According to the Daily Oklahoman,Â in 2012 Pruitt questioned whether the EPA hadÂ been secretly coordinating with national environmental groups to fileÂ lawsuits alleging violations of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. The same year he accused the Obama administration of wanting to âkill the oil industryâ and, in an opinion piece, claimed Obama had âpublicly stated goals of raising gas prices to near $8â a gallon. According to FactCheck.org,Â Obama never spoke of hiking gas pricesÂ to such levels.
â¢ Puzder has been a consistent criticÂ of National Labor Relations Board rulings, including a California law intended to preventÂ companies from denying workers overtime pay by classifying them as salaried and opposing minimum wage increases, which heÂ argued wouldÂ hurt small businesses.
â¢ Carson has been critical of a fair housing rule to desegregate housing. In 2015, he wrote an opinion columnÂ slamming âgovernment-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality.â
â¢ 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 saidÂ teaching has become a “self-serving industry” and thatÂ “we don’t fire teachers enough.” DeVos was arguingÂ that the United StatesÂ 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.Â “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.