Five Staff Positions to Watch During Senate Confirmation Hearings on Energy Nominees

Amy Harder
National Journal

The confirmation hearings that Senate committees hold on key administration appointees require intense preparation. Two panels in particular are managing a string of hearings on President Obama’s nominees to his second-term energy and environment team.

Here are four top Senate staffers and one from the House most involved in the vetting process for upcoming hearings on the president’s picks for Energy secretary (Ernest Moniz) and Environmental Protection Agency administrator (Gina McCarthy) and for last week’s hearing on Interior secretary nominee Sally Jewell:

Josh Sheinkman, staff director for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Sheinkman on Thursday began staffing the confirmation hearing for Jewell, CEO of outdoor-equipment retailer REI, and he ended the day meeting with Moniz, an MIT professor. So goes the month of March as Sheinkman helps Wyden help Obama get his nominees through what can be a rocky confirmation process. In an interview, Sheinkman described last week’s hearing for Jewell as “relatively noncontroversial by today’s standards,” but he predicted that Moniz’s hearing, which is not yet scheduled, could have more fireworks. Moniz has worked in the government before, as an Energy Department undersecretary during the Clinton administration, so he has more history for members to pick apart. The questions Moniz will get from Wyden during the hearing won’t be a big surprise, though, Sheinkman said: “Wyden has a policy of letting nominees know what questions he’s going to ask at hearings.” Sheinkman says he’s “coming back to his roots” in his new role. His first job for Wyden—almost 20 years ago, when the Oregon Democrat was a member of the House—was as an energy staffer. Since then, Sheinkman has worked on a host of issues for Wyden, including agricultural and tax policy.

Karen Billups, staff director for Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

It was no surprise to Capitol Hill staffers that Murkowski promoted Billups, who was formerly chief counsel for the Alaska Republican, to be her staff director when McKie Campbell, her former staff director, left for the private sector earlier this year. Billups says that her job now is a little more about process than policy. “I deal with policy issues when negotiations encounter roadblocks,” Billups said in an interview last week. “I’m the one who tries to talk to my counterpart on the majority side and see how we can resolve those issues.” Like Sheinkman, Billups is spending much of her time on Obama’s nominations for the Energy and Interior departments, and she also notes the committee will be even busier once the administration releases its budget.

Joe Mendelson, chief climate counsel for Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Boxer announced in January the creation of a new climate-change position on her panel and plucked Mendelson from the National Wildlife Federation, where he has directed global-warming policy since 2008. Boxer praised Mendelson’s legal work in the landmark Supreme Court case from 2007 that gave EPA the power to control greenhouse-gas emissions. Under the direction of Bettina Poirier, Boxer’s longtime aide and current staff director of the committee, Mendelson will help ensure that McCarthy, currently head of EPA’s clean-air office, makes it to the top of the agency. Her confirmation process could be the rockiest of all the president’s second-term Cabinet choices. Much of Republicans’ focus is likely to be on EPA’s greenhouse-gas rules, so Mendelson’s role could be critical.

Zak Baig, staff director for Environment and Public Works ranking member David Vitter, R-La.

Baig is directing Vitter’s staff to dig up as much dirt as they can on McCarthy ahead of her confirmation hearing, which is not yet been scheduled. In her current role as EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, McCarthy has been the point person on the administration’s regulations controlling greenhouse-gas emissions. “When you’re in the minority, you still have a lot of power with nominations,” said Andrew Wheeler, former staff director of the committee under then-Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla. He referred to some nominees Democrats held up during the George W. Bush administration when they were in the minority. “At this point, the president and EPA have a four-year record, and that is a lot of data that Zak and his team are going to go through.” Baig, a Louisiana native, has worked for Vitter in various positions for 11 years.

Tom Hassenboehler, top energy aide on House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Even though the House doesn’t handle Obama’s Cabinet nominees, Hassenboehler is able to help the Senate Republican minority from his powerful perch in the House. “We’re in the majority, and we have access to a lot of issues,” Hassenboehler said in an interview. “We’re happy to help educate their staffs and members.” On top of the policies, Hassenboehler knows the process. He worked for Inhofe in 2008, when the Oklahoma Republican was ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and vetted Obama’s first-term Cabinet members. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., hired Hassenboehler late last year, which marked a return to the House for Hassenboehler. He worked on the panel for four years during the Bush administration.