The “Name Game” begins in Washington

It’s entirely predictable. Once a new president is elected, the most popular topic in Washington becomes “the name game.” Who’s in, who’s out, who will get the political plum jobs.

Indeed, there is an official government publication, called The Plum Book, that lists the 7,000 or so political jobs that an incoming administration can appoint to ride herd on the hundreds of thousands of career civil servants who actually make the government tick (or not). The book, published alternately by the Senate Committee on Government Affairs and the House Committee on Government Relations, has the official title: United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions. It is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Bill Clinton drew criticism in 1992 and early 1993 for dilly-dallying about his immediate White House staff and cabinet and subcabinet selections. His transition to driving the ship of state was quite rocky, in part because he didn’t manage the selection of his team well.

President-elect Obama appears to be aware of that, and is moving quickly to put his folks in place.

The first choice was Rahm Emanuel, 48, to be chief of staff. Emanuel is a Clinton White House veteran, as well as a three-term congressman from Obama’s Chicago, who moved rapidly up the House leadership ladder. Emanuel is known for having sharp elbows in political disputes, a sharp mind, and a foul-mouthed, in-your-face demeanor. He is said to run a very tight ship.

The first order of business for the incoming administration is to line up “transition teams” to take a close look at the functioning of the federal agencies, and make recommendations on how, or whether, to reorganize them, and who should be the new leaders. This was an innovation of the Reagan administration in 1980. It proved to be valuable to the incoming administration, as well as giving the public a close view of the guts of administrative management at the various governmental institutions.

The Washington Post on Thursday, Nov. 6, reported that David Hayes, a former top-level Interior Department official in the Clinton administration, and an attorney at the well-connected Washington law firm of Latham & Watkins, would be running Obama’s transition operation for the Interior Department, the Energy Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Obama, the Post reported, has also named former Clinton-era EPA administrator Carol Browner (an Al Gore acolyte) to his transition team. The newspaper said other transition officials in energy and natural resources include former Interior solicitor John Leshy (well regarded by environmental groups), former fish, wildlife and parks chief Donald Barry, and former under secretary of state Frank Loy.

The overall leaders of the Obama transition, according to National Public Radio, are former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, Valerie Jarrett, a long-time Obama advisor, and Pete Rouse, Obama’s Senate chief of staff. It is said they will organize “parachute teams” to drop into the agencies and engage in bureaucratic intelligence gathering. Although the transition teams have not yet hit the ground – they’ve been working on background for a couple of month, according to press reports – rumors are already circulating about high-level appointments. There is speculation that Jason Grumet, the Obama campaign’s energy policy advisor, is headed to either DOE or EPA.

On the regulatory front, several sources have said that Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Greg Jaczko, a Democrat, is a certainty to be the new NRC chairman. Jaczko, a Ph.D. in physics, was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s technical advisor on nuclear issues, including the Yucca Mountain, Nev., waste site. His elevation to the NRC chairmanship, and Reid’s expanded control of the Senate, say the sources, could effectively doom the Yucca Mountain project.

At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, according to the same sources, a skirmish is already underway about who will be the Democratic chairman. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is said to be pushing his candidate, Commissioner Suedeen Kelly, to replace Joe Kelliher as chairman. Her term expires June 30, 2009. Republican Kelliher, who by most accounts has been a fine FERC chairman, has a term that expires June 30, 2012.

Sources suggest that Reid isn’t willing to give Bingaman his choice, preferring Commissioner Jon Wellinghof, former Nevada consumer advocate, for the chairmanship. His term expires June 30, 2013. Reid is also said to insist that he will pick the next Democratic replacement on the commission. Republican Commissioner Philip Moeller’s term is up June 30, 2010. FERC, by law, must consist of three members from the party in power, with the chairmanship part of that cohort.

Does the partisan makeup of FERC matter? Probably not, according to many who follow the agency on a day-to-day basis. But FERC can become an important political symbol when energy policy goes awry. That was the case when Enron imploded, competitive retail markets failed, and the Bush administration was forced to fire it own pick for the FERC chairmanship, Curt Hebert, replacing him with Texas regulator Pat Wood III.

Watch this space.