The EPA has long relied on competitive merits-based grant-making to support activities that deliver critical environmental improvements, pollution reductions, and public education. Until now, grant applications have been evaluated by career professional staff exclusively for their technical merit, and not on the basis of partisan political considerations. Now, the EPA has assigned a political appointee to review all grant solicitations and awards, which has not been done in any other administration.
Every previous EPA administration, both Republican and Democratic, has approached spending the federal grant dollars entrusted to it as a non-partisan merits-based exercise, free of politics and of the temptation by political appointees to use grant funds to advance political or ideological agendas. Under Scott Pruitt, the EPA has inserted a political operative into the process. A directive from Pruitt assigns this task to John Konkus, who previously worked on President Trump’s campaign, and is now the deputy associate administrator in EPA’s Office of Public Affairs, a position he occupies as a political appointee and not as a non-partisan career civil servant.
Mr. Konkus tipped his hand when he told staff he is looking for certain phrases, such as “climate change” – a signal that he and the Administrator might deny grant applications for research on climate science and adaptation. At a time when leading members of the Trump Administration publicly deny climate change, this will both reduce the amount of information the world has about how the climate is changing and also make it harder for communities to protect themselves from the changes that are already threatening them.
After the Interior Department took a similar step, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, issued a statement condemning these actions and the effect they will have on “public confidence in our nation’s research enterprise.”
Mr. Konkus’ status as a political appointee injects an irreducible element of partisanship into what had heretofore been a technical non-partisan task. For good measure, Mr. Konkus sought permission to work as a media consultant for at least two outside clients, an unnamed state legislator and his former employer, a political campaign firm. He later decided not to pursue the work, according to his ethics forms, but the fact that he sought approval increases the worry that his outside work overlaps with a political agenda.