Business & Lobbying

Battle over EPA pick is big business

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Outside groups are spending millions in the Senate battle over confirming Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

More than $3 million in spending and other actions on both sides are coming from nonprofit organizations that do not have to disclose their donors.

{mosads}The Environmental Defense Action Fund has spent $1 million opposing Pruitt, while NextGen Climate Action, the group founded by billionaire activist Tom Steyer, says its ad bill is seven figures.

The National Association of Manufacturers is the biggest spender in favor of Pruitt with a seven-figure ad campaign of its own.

The fierce battle reflects the high stakes of Pruitt’s nomination.

If confirmed, he would carry out Trump’s agenda of rolling back all of former President Barack Obama’s major climate change regulations, along with Obama’s major regulation asserting federal jurisdiction over small waterways, like ponds. He could also target the EPA’s limits on mercury pollution from power plants and on ground-level ozone, a byproduct of some pollutants from burning fossil fuels.

“It’s a rare thing to have this much aggression against a Cabinet nominee. Usually, Cabinet nominees are confirmed rather quickly, especially in these regulatory agencies,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“It’s only because Pruitt has been so outspoken on climate change issues and so aggressive that we’ve seen this play out.”

Anti-Pruitt forces scored a small victory Wednesday when Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted a committee vote to approve him, denying the GOP the quorum it needed to move forward with the vote.

But overall, Pruitt’s confirmation seems likely.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is the only Republican to voice any concerns about him, and he’ll need only 51 votes to be confirmed; the GOP holds 52 seats in the Senate.

The expensive battle over Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general who frequently sued Obama’s EPA, also reflects the growth of political nonprofit spending, which has coincided with an explosion of campaign funding through super PACs.

“There is now a permanent infrastructure of both super PACs and dark money groups that can turn on the spigot and open the sluice to have the money come pouring in at any given moment,” said Meredith McGehee, a veteran of political finance and ethics who serves as the head of policy at Issue One.

“We have an entire apparatus of groups that, with the tap of a key, can tap into huge numbers of donors, activists, et cetera,” she said.

The League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have sponsored smaller campaigns opposing Pruitt, while America Rising Squared has done extensive public relations in support of Pruitt.

In addition, Protecting America Now, a nonprofit group, was founded after Pruitt’s nomination and solicited industry donations for the express purpose of supporting his nomination and his agenda, according to a flier obtained by The Hill.

None of the major spenders have to disclose their donors, and in the case of Protecting America Now, the flier highlighted the nondisclosure of donors as a benefit.

Kate Doner, listed as the group’s fundraiser, did not respond to requests for comment.

Pruitt isn’t the only Trump nominee who is the subject of a major advertising campaign.

Attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos and Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) have also attracted advertising, organizing and other efforts.

“It is the first set of nominations of the dark-money era,” said Keith Gaby, spokesman for EDF Action.

EDF Action has not opposed any EPA nominee before, but Gaby said it felt obliged to battle Pruitt.

“He seems to have been deliberately chosen as the most provocative, anti-EPA choice Trump could have made,” Gaby said.

Gaby pointed to the “dark money” supporting Pruitt’s confirmation as evidence of his strong allegiance with industries like oil and natural gas. Greens and Democrats have hounded Pruitt for his industry connections and his fundraising for various political groups such as the Republican Attorneys Generals Association and a pair of PACs connected to him.

“It does nothing but confirm our suspicion that Pruitt will be up to no good on behalf of special interests, when special interests are clearly funding a dark-money campaign to put him in place,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Jeremy Adler, spokesman for America Rising Squared, was equally critical of the environmental groups opposing Pruitt.

“Their message and agenda were rejected by the American people, and despite losing at the ballot box, they’re still prescribing the same dangerous agenda that would hurt families, drive up costs on them and eliminate millions of jobs,” said Adler.

“That’s why they’re opposing Scott Pruitt, because they know he’s an impediment to their extreme agenda,” he said.

Observers see the high interest in Pruitt’s nomination as a preview of things to come, both in terms of how outside groups will be involved in EPA fights under Trump and how groups will battle over Cabinet nominees in the future.

“There’s a pent-up demand to be able to challenge the president on policy,” said Rottinghaus. “There were concerns and fears in the party that they didn’t go far enough to really take apart his policy agenda. This is an opportunity for these groups to go after him on policy and not on personality.”

Tags Barack Obama Jeff Sessions Sheldon Whitehouse Susan Collins

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