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How Much Impact Does a Presidential Election Have on EPA Work?

Nov. 2, 2020, 9:00 AM

During my 18-year career at the Environmental Protection Agency, people often asked me how much the outcome of a presidential election affected my job. My response remained consistent throughout my government service: The outcome of an election affects nothing about my job, and it affects everything about my job.

As the questioner tried to solve my riddle-like answer, I would explain what I meant. As a government lawyer, my job was to provide objective advice to my client, and to give the same objective advice regardless of who I was giving it to. In that way, the outcome of an election had no effect on my job. On the other hand, what my client chose to do with my objective advice could be wildly different, and I had taken the same oath to zealously advocate on behalf of my client that every lawyer takes. In that way, the outcome of an election affected everything about my job.

My answer was closely tied to my status as a lawyer, but the sentiment can apply to federal employees of any position or profession. Every employee in the civil service is required by federal law to take an oath that they “will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which [they] are about to enter.”

The duties for nearly all positions in the federal government will tie the type of work you are expected to do to the mission and priorities of the agency. As a civil servant, you learn very early in your career that you are not in your position to advance your personal priorities or policy goals, but to “well and faithfully” do your job in support of the agency’s priorities and goals.

With the potential for the outcome of an election to affect everything about the job of nearly every employee, how disruptive are presidential elections themselves on executive branch agencies? Less disruptive than you might think.

Experience From Five Presidential Elections

I was at the EPA for five presidential elections, including three where control of the White House changed parties, and in several of those years I remember being frustrated by how little anyone even acknowledged that the election was approaching. Even in 2016, when it was my responsibility to provide the legal support necessary for the transition between presidential administrations, my job still entailed providing objective legal advice to my client—just on a different subject.

Mainly because of the oath they take (and partly because the ethics rules do not allow for something different), most federal employees will continue to do the same work in the same way, even under the shadow of an impending election. That is true even for this election. Take, for example, the work of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP).

EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs

The government’s response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and resulting Covid-19 pandemic has emerged as a leading issue in next week’s presidential election, and multiple federal agencies involved in that response have been infected with high-profile Covid-19-related controversies. The OPP plays a critical role in the government’s pandemic response, determining whether disinfectant products (a list that recently reached 500) can be used against Covid-19.

Nearly everyone depends on the OPP for the safety and efficacy of the products we use in our daily lives, and there are millions of dollars at stake with each decision the office makes. And yet, the controversies experienced by other federal agencies have not spread to the OPP.

The OPP’s current operational success may cause some to ask whether the outcome of the election poses a threat to the office’s ability to continue to deliver on its mission. Unlike the lack of impacts leading up to an election, there will certainly be post-election impacts regardless of who wins.

Data demonstrates that a sizable portion of an agency’s political appointees will depart early in a second term, and new appointees come with new ideas and priorities that may not line up with those of their predecessors.

If the country elects a new president, there will be a push by the outgoing administration to complete unfinished business even as representatives from the new administration arrive to figuratively measure the agency’s drapes and decide what must be changed first.

Potentially exacerbating the impact is the sheer number of EPA officials who are eligible for retirement. The government’s “leave year” ends the first week of January and is always a popular retirement date, and this year there is anecdotal evidence that the number of retirements after the election or the inauguration will be higher than normal.

But none of that is likely to stop the OPP from continuing to distinguish itself within the government’s Covid-19 response.

The OPP’s work is grounded in the preparation in 2016 by career civil servants who developed the EPA’s emerging viral pathogens guidance that specified how the EPA would determine which products were safe and effective for use against a virus that was so new no one could even test their products against it. In the following three years, the EPA pre-approved emerging viral pathogen claims, creating a reserve army of products that could be called into duty depending on the type of viral pathogen at issue. When Covid-19 first emerged and began to spread, the OPP simply activated that army and then recruited other volunteers to join its ranks.

The OPP’s current success is attributable to the work of its career employees. The political appointees responsible for the work of the OPP deserve credit for largely empowering the career employees to continue to do their jobs without inserting themselves into a process that is consistently delivering results. By doing so, they have prepared the OPP to continue to deliver results regardless of who wins next Tuesday.

Elections are filled with uncertainty and a lengthy list of “what ifs?” Thankfully, the continued performance of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs in determining whether disinfectants are safe and effective for use against Covid-19 can be left off that list.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Kevin S. Minoli is a partner at Alston & Bird in Washington, D.C., where he heads the Environment, Land Use & Natural Resources group and is a member of the firm’s Covid-19 Response & Relief team. He formerly served as the acting general counsel and principal deputy general counsel at the EPA.

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