President Obama nominated a noted utility executive, John Bryson, to be the next Commerce secretary on Tuesday, noting his "decades of experience" promoting clean energy, but Republican senators have vowed to block the nomination until the president submits a trio of trade pacts for ratification.
While Bryson's record is unlikely to stir opposition, 44 Republican senators have vowed to block the nomination of a Commerce secretary—or any trade-related post—until Obama submits for ratification trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. That's more than enough votes to sustain a filibuster should Senate Republicans choose to go that route. The White House has declined to submit the treaties without reauthorization of Trade Adjustment Assistance, an expired program to retrain workers displaced by such deals, leading to what appears to be a standoff.
“Until the President submits [the trade] agreements to Congress for approval and commits to signing implementing legislation into law, we will use all the tools at our disposal to force action, including withholding support for any nominee for Commerce Secretary and any trade-related nominees,” the GOP senators said in a March 14 letter.
On Tuesday, Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the GOP stands ready to block Bryson and the other nominations.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee vowed to oppose the Bryson nomination because of the very environmental record that Obama trumpeted. "Jobs killing," Inhofe called it. The Oklahoman has called the idea of catastrophic climate change "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
While the Republicans are loath to approve the nomination, Bryson's environmental bona fides are likely to cheer Democrats. A former chairman and CEO of Edison International—the parent company of Southern California Edison—Bryson helped found the Natural Resources Defense Council back in 1970. Indeed, Obama used the Bryson announcement to tout green energy, one of the major policy thrusts of his administration, so much so that at times it sounded like Bryson had been nominated for Energy secretary instead. The president noted that Bryson has "been a fierce proponent of alternative energy," citing his push to put solar panels on 65 million square feet of California rooftops.
In a worrisome sign for Republicans, a leading business group, the Business Roundtable, backed the nomination in a statement issued on Tuesday, suggesting that there may be some distance between Senate Republicans and the business community on this issue. The statement urged swift approval of the nomination. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also praised the Bryson nomination.
Bryson did not speak at the announcement, nor did Gary Locke, the man he would replace. Locke has been nominated to be ambassador to China, a position that became vacant when Jon Huntsman resigned to begin a likely presidential bid. The silence was unusual. At most events of this kind the departing official and the arriving one usually make remarks thanking the president and their families as well as citing the important work of their office.
While focusing on Bryson's energy credentials, Obama also touted the Californian's experience with international trade and promotion of American business—the duties most associated with the office of Commerce secretary.
"As Commerce secretary, John is going to be an important part of my economic team, promoting American business and American products across the globe," Obama said in a brief statement from the White House with Bryson and Locke by his side. "By working with companies here at home and representing America’s interests abroad, I'm confident he'll help us meet the goal of—that I set of doubling our nation's exports."
Bryson does, in fact, work with a slew of multinational corporations. He is a director of Boeing, the Walt Disney Co., and Coda Automotive. He is also a senior adviser to Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts. Bryson is chairman of the board of BrightSource Energy and the board of overseers of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. In addition, he is a trustee of the California Institute of Technology and a director of the California Endowment and W.M. Keck Foundation. Bryson is a graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School.
Bryson's service on the Boeing board may raise uncomfortable questions at his confirmation hearings. The National Labor Relations Board has issued a complaint against the aircraft giant saying that it moved jobs from Washington state to South Carolina to retaliate against striking workers. The company denies the charge but it seems certain that Bryson will be asked about whether he weighed in on this issue which has infuriated conservatives and met with applause from organized labor.
For his part, Bryson would be taking over at Commerce at a time of considerable ferment. In June, Jeffrey Zients, the federal government's chief performance officer, is expected to issue proposals for reorganizing federal agencies and departments that deal with trade. This would have a potentially huge effect on the Commerce Department, which will turn 100 in 2013.
In his State of the Union address, Obama said he would propose "to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote—and we will push to get it passed."
In March, the president asked Zients to pursue those goals. Those proposals will likely include a reorganization of the Commerce Department, which was created to promote American business but whose budget is dominated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Census Bureau. One idea often discussed in Washington is to put the U.S. Trade Representative's Office under the Commerce Department, but Zients has offered no hints as to what he's planning to recommend.
Do look for at least one change: fisheries. "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater," the president said in his State of the Union address, to laughter in the House chamber. "I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked."
The Commerce secretary's job may have become ill-defined in recent years as economic policymaking has largely migrated to the White House and the Treasury Department, but it's still a prestigious post and a steppingstone to higher office. White House Chief of Staff William Daley served as Commerce secretary, as did President Hoover and New York Gov. Averell Harriman. Others include financier Peter G. Peterson and Ron Brown, a prominent Washington lawyer who had been chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He died when his plane crashed on a trade mission to the Balkans in 1996.
The Commerce Department began as the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 and became a separate department in 1913.
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Dan Friedman and Kelsey Snell contributed contributed to this article.