Congress is unlikely to tackle any major energy and environment legislation through regular order. So if any sliver of policy does get through either or both chambers, it will be thanks to the small cadre of energy and environment aides in congressional leadership offices. Here’s who you need to know.
Alexander McDonough, senior policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
You know you have the trust of the top Democrat in the Senate when he directs you to oversee efforts to block Yucca Mountain, the now-defunct nuclear-waste repository site 90 miles from Las Vegas that President Obama shut down in large part because of Reid’s staunch opposition to it. McDonough has managed Yucca for the better part of the seven years he has worked for Reid. The majority leader just promoted McDonough to be his top energy and environment adviser after Chris Miller, Reid’s longtime energy and environment aide, left Congress after more than a quarter-century on Capitol Hill.
“They replaced him with someone who Reid trusts and counts on and has handled difficult issues for him already,” said former Reid deputy chief of staff Kai Anderson, who worked with McDonough. Like many top leadership staffers, McDonough is responsible for writing policy and then orchestrating that policy within an increasingly partisan political environment.
“The portfolio is going to be even more complicated than the one he had before,” said Anderson, who is now chief strategy officer and executive vice president at lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates. “There will be more broad-based responsibility working across the caucus.”
Besides Yucca Mountain, McDonough has spent much of his time in Reid’s office focusing on public lands and water infrastructure, two issues important to Nevada. As the top aide in this space, McDonough must now focus on more-political issues like repealing oil and natural-gas tax breaks (something Reid said last week he’s planning on seeking as part of the sequestration debate) and defending the administration’s authority to regulate carbon emissions.
Neil Chatterjee, senior policy adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Seeking to shape policy and determine what issues get floor time when you’re in the minority is a tricky job. But McConnell, with advice from Chatterjee, forced votes on a whole host of issues in the last Congress, including the Keystone XL pipeline and Environmental Protection Agency rules to control greenhouse-gas emissions. Expect much of the same this session as these two issues get even more intense when Obama finally makes his post-election decision on the pipeline project and EPA moves into the most controversial parts of its global-warming rulemaking. In addition to the big-ticket political issues in energy and environment, Chatterjee plays a central role working with committees and across the aisle on agricultural and transportation issues. In the last Congress, he helped both the farm-bill extension and the transportation bill cross the finish line.
Aaron Cutler, soon-to-be-announced director for strategic development and senior policy adviser for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Cantor’s office is expected to announce this week that he has selected Cutler, deputy policy director and counsel on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as his policy adviser, National Journal has learned. Cutler will replace Mike Ference, who recently left Cantor's office to join a lobbying firm. When he was in Cantor's office, Ference advised the congressman on a number of policy issues, including energy and environment, technology and telecommunications, banking, and financial services. Cutler has spent about four years on the Energy Committee, focusing much of that time on energy and Clean Air Act issues.
Maryam Brown, senior energy policy adviser to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
From her new perch in the speaker’s office, Brown will be instrumental in coordinating political strategy with the House Energy and Commerce Committee—where she most recently worked—and with Senate Republicans on how to capitalize on and urge approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Brown also will be critical in shaping the House GOP leadership’s position on whether any oil and natural-gas tax breaks should be repealed as part of a tax-code overhaul. Brown is no stranger to Congress. She has worked for the Senate Republican Policy Committee and was staff director for the House Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee. Her private-sector experience is heavy on oil, including ConocoPhillips and Amoco.
Mary Frances Repko, senior policy adviser to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Repko is considered to have some of the deepest institutional knowledge of energy and environment issues among congressional aides. Indeed, she has a résumé stacked with Hill experience going back to 1994, including senior positions on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Repko is focusing much of her time on Hurricane Sandy relief efforts and what more the government could do to ensure communities are prepared for other extreme-weather events.
While most policy that Repko is working on probably won’t see the light of day while Democrats are in the minority in the House, she did note that Boehner has been increasingly relying on Democratic votes to get big legislation, including the $50 billion Sandy-aid package, through the chamber. “There will continue to be times when Republicans will need Democratic votes in order to pass things,” Repko said. “We continue to look for those opportunities where we can have a chance to work with the majority.”
This is the first in a new weekly series highlighting significant staff positions in the 113th Congress. To suggest a position or staffer for the list, please tweet to @NJLeadership or e-mail Managing Editor Kristin Roberts at email@example.com.
This article appears in the February 4, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Five Staff Positions to Watch: Energy.