Three-Dimensional Musical Chairs in Washington

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., 9 November 2012 – “Three-dimensional musical chairs” best describes what happens in Washington during the start of a second presidential term. The jockeying for position can get confusing and nasty as folks seek to move up, down, around and out as the administration rearranges its second-term priorities. Sharp elbows can come in useful.

People inform and shape policy. After four years, many of those people are exhausted, burned out, impoverished, or bored. That there will be major personnel changes in the Obama administration’s energy and environmental team is almost certain. Who they will be isn’t obvious at this writing. We should start seeing some changes soon.

It is important to understand that the White House, not the administrative agencies, really drives executive branch policy these days, although the attention in personnel stories often focuses on cabinet heads and cabinet agencies generally have flexibility in carrying out policy. Many in positions that truly pull the strings on administration initiatives remain hidden behind a political curtain. Who fills the cabinet and subcabinet jobs in the second Obama administration is often a function of the little-known actors underneath the cone of silence.

Will Steven Chu remain as energy secretary? Politico has characterized him as “the cabinet secretary the White House wants to see go the most.” Chu proves that possessing a Nobel Prize in a technical discipline – high-energy physics in his case – is no guarantee of success in the energy policy and politics arena. Witness the Solyndra debacle.

Should Chu depart, who is line to succeed him? Speculation includes White House inside energy advisor Heather Zichal, 36, who was a key aide to former Obama White House energy policy czarina Carol Browner, who was an acolyte of Al Gore. Zichal, a major White House player in the Solyndra drama, worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and has close ties to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a favored candidate to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. When Browner left the White House in 2011, Zichal replaced her as the president’s chief energy guru.

Also rumored to be candidates for the DOE job are MIT’s Ernie Moniz, a Clinton-era White House and DOE appointee and another physicist; former North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan or former New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who was chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Cathy Zoi, another Gore disciple who served in the Clinton EPA and under Chu as assistant secretary for renewables; and Katie McGinty, a Gore veteran and former Clinton White House advisor. On the longshot list are Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, who orchestrated the successful Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., and Lew Hay of Next Era Energy, parent of Florida Power & Light.

Shirley Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, is another Obama official some see as an early departure. While she’s the one whom the energy folks love to hate, Jackson has managed to get the administration’s regulatory agenda launched, if not yet sailing entirely smoothly. There is speculation she wants to leave the administration to run for office in either New Jersey or New Orleans.

If Jackson were to pursue a new life, Zichal is also a leading candidate to replace her. Also in the replacement queue is EPA assistant administrator for air quality Gina McCarthy. She would be a very interesting and ironic choice. McCarthy was Mitt Romney’s top environmental regulator when he was Massachusetts governor, and then the chief environmental regulator in the administration of Connecticut Republican governor Jodi Rell, before coming to the attention of the Obama administration in 2008. McCarthy is plainspoken, tough, and smart. Another name in the mix is Jackson’s current deputy, Bob Perciasepe, a former Audubon Society executive and Maryland environmental regulator who has a lot of support among environmental groups. Also in the mix for the EPA job is Mary Nichols, now the top air regulator in California and a former EPA air chief in the Clinton administration.

The second Obama administration probably means little change in regulatory agencies that impact on electricity. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will remain in Democratic hands, although that means little for the fate of the nuclear industry, which faces enormous economic challenges. The same is true for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where Democrat Jon Wellinghoff, a protégé of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, will remain as chairman. Neither the NRC nor FERC have a remotely partisan agenda, although that doesn’t mean their work is uncontroversial or unimportant.

There are also changes coming in the 113th Congress, with implications that aren’t yet focused. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, 63, is in line to take over the Senate committee from Bingaman, who is retiring. Wyden has a reputation for bipartisanship, as did Bingaman, and the committee has never been a locus of partisanship. As one long-time observer once quipped, “Pork has always trumped party” in the energy committee.

While the GOP has kept control of the House of Representatives, there will be major changes in the all-important Energy and Commerce Committee, where Michigan Republican Fred Upton will continue as chairman. The third, seventh, and twelfth most senior Republicans will not be back come January. Cliff Stearns of Florida, third behind Upton and former chairman Joe Barton of Texas, lost a surprise Republican primary race, as did Oklahoma’s John Sullivan, while Mary Bono Mack of California, seventh in line behind Upton, lost the general election to a Democrat.

Stearns, the scourge of Solyndra, was chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, which led the investigation into the Obama administration’s $527 million loan to the failed solar photovoltaic company. Sullivan, who barely survived a 2010 primary challenge after acknowledging an “addiction to alcohol,” was vice chairman of the important Energy and Power Subcommittee, backstopping chairman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky.

Mack, a seven-term representative from Palm Springs and the widow of rock musician Sonny Bono (Sonny & Cher), was chairman of the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee, was upset by Raul Ruiz, an emergency room physician and son of migrant workers. She is married to Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.), who lost a Senate race to incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson (Mack is the son of a former Florida Republican Senator and great-grandson of baseball legend Connie Mack).