FOR SCIENCE

Republicans want to investigate EPA employees for using Signal to strategize how to thwart Republicans

After Politico reported that some career employees of the US Environmental Protection Agency were using the encrypted-messaging app Signal to strategize a response to the administration of US president Donald Trump, two Republican lawmakers requested an investigation.

“Reportedly, this group of career officials at the EPA are aiming to spread their goals covertly to avoid federal records requirements, while also aiming to circumvent the government’s ability to monitor their communications,” Lamar Smith, a Republican representative from Texas and the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and Darin LaHood, a Republican representative from Illinois and chairman of the committee’s subcommittee on oversight, wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to the EPA’s internal oversight office.

Technically speaking, all government business is supposed to take place over official government email, to comply with records-keeping requirements and the Freedom of Information Act. But that hasn’t stopped senior GOP officials in the Trump administration from using a Snapchat-like “disappearing” encryption messaging app called Confide to communicate with each other.

Nor has it deterred a group of EPA employees (“numbering less than a dozen so far,” according to Politico) from using Signal to deliberate on what they can do if Trump’s political appointees gut the agency, delete EPA data, attempt to do something illegal, or otherwise threaten the mission of the EPA to protect public health and the environment, according to Politico’s source.

Because Congress gave the EPA the authority, by statute, to enact and enforce rules and regulations in service of that mission, preventing the EPA from fulfilling it might in some cases be a violation of statute—or in other words, illegal. And many of the EPA’s blockbuster regulations themselves are laws, like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, so infringing on these may similarly be illegal.

There are many routes Congress and the executive branch could legally take to hobble the agency, however. Congress can pass laws canceling other laws out, or starve the EPA of funds by slashing its budget. But it wouldn’t necessarily be easy. “In reality, a president who wants to eliminate or ‘demolish’ EPA would need a majority of the House, 60 votes in the Senate, and the ability to overcome vehement opposition from the environmental and public health community,” writes Jody Freeman, of Harvard Law School.

Efforts to hamper the EPA’s ability to do its job are on the very near horizon, though. Trump, for example, plans to sign executive orders to limit the EPA’s climate change-related work as soon as his nominee to run the agency, Scott Pruitt, is confirmed, according to sources within the administration, which could be as soon as this week.

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