Can Steven Chu Lobby?

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., February 15, 2011 – Can Energy Secretary Steven Chu learn to lobby? The fate of the Obama administration’s budget for his department hangs in the answer to that question. So does the fate of the tattered remnants of the strategy the administration brought to Washington to deal with its apocalyptic views of the future of the world’s climate. Chu must learn new job skills.

Amidst all the fervor and furor over budget cutting, the White House has proposed remarkably generous increases for the energy agency. The agenda put forward in the wreckage of its cap-and-trade climate adventure includes a major incursion of electric cars into the economy, new nuclear power plants, plus-sized and mini, and double-and-triple-digit percentage increases in funding for a panoply of allegedly green activities. The Energy Daily characterized the administration’s proposed fiscal 2012 spending plan as “surprisingly lush.”

Here are some particulars: vehicle technologies would get $558 million for FY 2012 (the fiscal year begins Oct. 1), up 83 percent over current spending (not counting the enormous slug of stimulus funding that flowed to DOE outside the usual budget process for FY 2010 and FY 2011); geothermal energy would land $102 million, up 135 percent; building energy technologies $471 million, a 115 percent hike; solar at $457 million, up 88 percent. Obamabudget would add $36 billion in loan guarantee authority for conventional nukes. It would set aside $67 million for a steel cage death match among small reactor designs. (Yes, DOE would, gasp, be picking winners and losers). And so it goes.

But House Republicans, now in the majority on that side (right, looking East from the White House) of the legislative edifice, have somewhat different ideas for DOE spending. They would pull out the political machetes and whack away at the agency from all directions. The House GOP hasn’t made its energy spending plans available (they probably haven’t formulated a plan yet), but it is not likely to embrace the kinds of dollars the White House wants.

The energy agency has few allies for such expansive spending ambitions, on both the right and the left. Republicans have traditionally viewed the green-tinted portions of the agency with considerable jaundice. But even supporters of the development of renewable technologies have doubts about the efficacy of the energy department in picking technology gems from the hyperbolic ooze that characterizes much of what comes before the agency seeking funding. Ed Lyman, a long-time observer of Washington energy policy from his perch at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Politico this week, “I’m not sure how much appetite there is right now for large infusions of money into government-financed projects, because there’s no question that the Department of Energy has an abysmal track record in actually deploying [new technologies]. Its structure, its management are just not suited for that kind of work.”

So it’s going to be up to Chu to save the administration’s energy spending plans. Is Chu suited for that kind of work? Based on what we have seen so far, it’s not clear that the Nobel Prize winner in physics possesses the talents and temperament to schmooze, cajole, and horse trade that it usually takes to win money battles on Capitol Hill. Shortly before the White House unveiled its new budget proposal, there were rumors that Chu was ready to return to academia, from whence he came.

Energy Daily editor George Lobsenz, who has been covering Washington energy politics for decades, wrote recently that working the Hill in behalf of the Obama budget “is likely to be particularly difficult for Chu because political skills have never been his long suit,” and that he has a reputation among veteran DOE watchers as not “a hands-on energy secretary in terms of being closely engaged in department operations.”

The article recalled an anecdote from Chu’s early days piloting the difficult agency. “[S]ources say the energy secretary may have gotten off on the wrong foot with appropriators when early in Chu’s tenure he took a ride with them on a nuclear-powered submarine as part of a trip designed to highlight the work of DOE’s Office of Naval Reactors. Multiple sources say that rather than schmoozing the appropriators—as might be expected of a Cabinet officer intent on preserving his budget—an apparently bored Chu sat down to do a crossword puzzle, to the irritation of some of the lawmakers.”

Yet Chu has strengths he can call on when dealing with the folks who sign the checks. First, he has Obama’s support and trust, which is worth plenty. He also has the admiration of many in Congress from both parties for his intellect. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking minority member of the appropriations subcommittee that funds DOE programs, calls him “the shining light of this administration”

Chu’s first task will be to defend against cuts to the current budget during dealings this month and early next month on a continuing resolution to continue spending at current levels in the absence of a 2011 appropriation. That will take place in the context of the need to increase the debt ceiling for the executive branch and sword rattling (which may, or may not, turn into sword wielding) over shutting down the government.

Only then will Congress turn to the FY 2012 budget. If recent history is any guide, the administration proposal has no chance of being enacted as presented. Nor is there any reason to believe the administration expects or even wants that outcome. The budget is a first offer. It’s as likely as not that, as is true today, the government will go through all of 2012 without a formally-approved budget, working instead from stop-gap measures to keep programs moving.

That’s going to make the energy lobbying job doubly difficult. Whether Chu, who certainly has the brains to solve the political differential equations, has the will or the taste for selling his and the White House’s solutions remains to be seen.