New Energy Secretary Fits Trend: Cabinet Dominated by Lobbyists

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Monday, October 21, 2019

Energy Secretary Rick Perry in the East Room of the White House in July. 
Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump likes to say that people in his political orbit come straight out of central casting, “tough hombres” from far beyond the Capital Beltway ready to roil the swamp.

Increasingly, though, his cabinet is full of lobbyists.

On Friday came the latest lobbyist elevation. Out went Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the genial former governor of Texas and onetime Dancing with the Stars contestant. In came his deputy, Dan Brouillette, who spent much of his career as a senior vice president of the United Services Automobile Association, a financial services company, and at the Ford Motor Company.

Mr. Trump called him “a total professional,” in a staff change by Tweet: “Dan’s experience in the sector is unparalleled,” the president said.

The pattern holds throughout the agencies trusted to provide for the common defense, promote clean air and water, care for public lands and waters, and safeguard energy supplies and nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump, who campaigned for president on the oft-repeated pledge to “drain the swamp,” initially favored charismatic former politicians with a flair for the dramatic, like Mr. Perry; or former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former member of the Navy SEALs who arrived to work on horseback; his first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, a bellicose Oklahoma attorney general; or his first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, a former Marine Corps general whom Mr. Trump introduced as “Mad Dog.”

All are gone, replaced by lobbyists — less camera-ready but more familiar with the inner workings of their agencies, if only because they spent years trying to influence them.

“Trump’s rhetoric about draining the swamp, I don’t think anyone really took seriously,” said Tim LaPira, a professor of political science at James Madison University who studies Washington’s revolving door.

A ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations analysis this week found Mr. Trump brought in 281 former lobbyists since the start of the administration. His cabinet now includes a former coal lobbyist running the Environmental Protection Agency, a former oil and gas lobbyist in charge of the Department of Interior, a top lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon leading the Defense Department — and, if he is confirmed, an automobile lobbyist at the Energy Department.

That might seem like business as usual for Americans who accepted candidate Trump’s description of Washington as rife with influence peddlers and profiteers. But it might actually be worse than usual. Because of the extraordinarily high rate of turnover that is a hallmark of the Trump administration, the White House’s human resources professionals have had little time to come up with outside-the-Beltway replacements for the constant stream of openings, Mr. LaPira said.

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog group, called the proliferation of lobbyists in Mr. Trump’s cabinet deeply worrisome. He pointed to David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist who served as deputy secretary of the Interior Department before he replaced Mr. Zinke in April as Interior secretary.

Mr. Bernhardt has been dogged by ethics investigations since he joined the Trump administration, in large part because of his lobbyist past. In April the Interior Department’s internal watchdog opened an inquiry into allegations, revealed by New York Times investigations, that Mr. Bernhardt used his position to advance a policy pushed by his former lobbying client.

“The revolving door between industries and lobbying in the administration has always been a thing, but it is much more pronounced right now,” Mr. Libowitz said. “It raises the question of whether things are being tilted in favor of industry as a rule, over what may be in the interest of the American people.”

Elevating officials working as deputies or in the agency’s trenches is nothing new. But Mr. Trump’s penchant for simply promoting No. 2 officials to cabinet posts appears to be more a matter of expediency than a reward for hard work. Deputy secretaries have already been through grueling Senate confirmations, thus mostly eliminating the element of surprise in an administration not known for employing a stringent vetting process.

And for a president who has openly expressed his preference for having “acting” secretaries instead of confirmed ones, elevating a No. 2 to “acting secretary” avoids running afoul of a longstanding law, the Vacancies Act, that requires secretary positions to go to ranked officials in the department who have been confirmed by the Senate.

“The desirability of working for this president and working in these high profile jobs gets riskier and riskier over time, so I suspect the pool of applicants has also declined,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Elevating a No. 2, she added, is “the path of least resistance.”

Mr. Brouillette has a far less flashy history than Mr. Perry, having served behind the scenes for much of his career. Before working in the automobile industry, Mr. Brouillette served as the chief of staff to Billy Tauzin, a former Republican House member from Louisiana who became a lobbyist himself. Mr. Brouillette did a stint in the Department of Energy under George W. Bush as an assistant secretary for congressional affairs.

Others follow similar patterns. Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist and longtime Capitol Hill aide, took the helm of the E.P.A. after Mr. Pruitt resigned amid scandal.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, Mr. Trump turned to Robert L. Wilkie, an under secretary of defense, when an effort to install his personal physician failed. And in May Mr. Trump announced his intention to nominate Patrick M. Shanahan, the deputy defense secretary and former Boeing executive, to replace Mr. Mattis. Mr. Shanahan withdrew his name from consideration after facing questions about a domestic violence episode in 2010. In July the Senate confirmed Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the secretary of the Army who previously lobbied for Raytheon.

The No. 2s sliding into the No. 1 slots don’t often appear at rallies or on the Sunday news programs. But historians noted that their deep experience as both lobbyists and lower-ranking agency officials means they know how to operate the levers of the federal government to change policy.

Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, and William P. Barr, the attorney general, came to their posts with high levels of government and private sector experience, replacing predecessors who came straight from elective politics. Mr. Azar, a former drug company executive who served in the administration of George W. Bush, succeeded Tom Price, a former congressman. Mr. Barr succeeded Jeff Sessions, who came to the post straight from the Senate.

In some cases that has allowed them to affect policy in ways their predecessors had not — particularly in energy and environment policy. Mr. Wheeler, for example, is more meticulous than Mr. Pruitt in following the rules as he rolls back environmental regulations. That could lead to fewer losses in court and far more success.

In the case of Mr. Brouillette, energy analysts said he shares Mr. Perry’s personable style, but is known more for his deep knowledgeof key policy issues related to nuclear weapons, cyber security and energy exports.

“He’s more in the weeds of the management and the policy than Perry, who’s more casting the vision and selling American energy technology and abundance,” said Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath Foundation, a conservative clean-energy group in Washington.

Charles Untermeyer, who served as director of presidential personnel under the first President George Bush, said the average tenure of a presidential appointment was about two years, so the departure of Mr. Perry at this point in the administration is not unusual. And, he said, the promotion of seconds-in-command who have knowledge and experience is commendable.

“We can only applaud this because these are people who know how Washington runs,” Mr. Untermeyer said. “You need people who know how to make the machinery work.”