Senate Republicans’ move on Friday to scuttle the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s pick to be the EPA’s second-highest ranking official, Doug Benevento, isn’t likely to have a significant impact on the agency’s day-to-day operations, legal scholars say.
Benevento currently serves as the Environmental Protection Agency’s associate deputy administrator. He was tapped to become the deputy administrator in February.
Very few—if any—duties of a Senate-confirmed deputy administrator can’t also be delegated to Benevento in his role as associate deputy, said Anne Joseph O’Connell, a law professor and political scientist at Stanford University.
Benevento’s current duties include managing the EPA’s 10 regions and serving as an ombudsman between the regions and the agency’s headquarters on the “implementation of agency priorities,” according to the EPA.
“When the EPA wants to stop things, the acting people seem to be doing it just fine,” agreed Robert Kagan, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “When they want to reduce enforcement, or supervise the agency more carefully, they can still do that.”
The EPA didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Even had a vote gone forward, Benevento faced opposition from Democratic senators that would have made his nomination tricky.
Remaining in the associate role could have less formal impacts, however.
“As a functional matter, you are perceived to have less authority, less stature, and less pull, not just by the people below you, but also by Congress and other actors,” O’Connell said. “And this is technical, but he’s going to get paid less.”
Some surveys have also shown that agencies with high numbers of vacancies have higher rates of government failure and less happy workers, according to O’Connell.
Stan Meiburg, who served as the EPA’s acting deputy administrator in the Obama administration, bemoaned the agency’s lack of a full-time deputy chief.
“By law, the deputy administrator is EPA’s chief operating officer and plays a critical role in the effective operation of the agency under the administrator’s leadership,” said Meiburg, who now directs Wake Forest University’s graduate programs in sustainability. “Without regard to the merits of any particular candidate, it is unfortunate that a permanent deputy can’t be confirmed.”
The EPA has been without a Senate-confirmed deputy administrator since August 2014, apart from a brief period when now-Administrator Andrew Wheeler served in that role, Meiburg said.
Barrasso: No Vote
The Senate decision came after Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said she would block Benevento until the EPA spells out its plan for addressing dozens of retroactive refinery requests to be exempted from federal biofuel-blending requirements.
“Iowa’s hardworking ethanol and biodiesel producers are sick of being yanked around by Andrew Wheeler and the EPA,” Ernst said in a statement. “Our producers need certainty; until we get that, no EPA nominee is getting my vote.”
Ernst telegraphed her plans in a call with supporters Thursday night, a recording of which was obtained by Bloomberg Law.
“We need to give some sort of consistency to our farmers,” she said. “They need to know what’s going on. I need to know what’s going on.”
The EPA’s handling of the biofuel mandate has been a flashpoint in Ernst’s closely watched race for re-election. Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield has accused Ernst of “staying silent” as the EPA advances policies that threaten to hurt Iowa farmers.
A pro-biofuel group, Growth Energy, cheered Ernst’s intervention on the issue.
“There is no justification for allowing these petitions to hang over the market, injecting uncertainty into America’s agricultural recovery,” said Emily Skor, the groups CEO.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, confirmed in an emailed statement that Ernst’s announcement means “a path forward for Mr. Benevento’s nomination to be deputy administrator of the EPA no longer exists.”
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