Wednesday Q+A with Dan Utech

The former White House energy adviser discusses shepherding nominees through the confirmation process

Dan Utech, former deputy assistant to President Obama for energy and climate change.
Jan. 17, 2017, 8 p.m.

Un­til last week, Dan Utech was the deputy as­sist­ant to Pres­id­ent Obama for En­ergy and Cli­mate Change. Be­fore that, he was a seni­or ad­visor to En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Steven Chu and was the “sherpa” who guided Chu through the con­firm­a­tion pro­cess in 2009. As a No­bel phys­i­cist best known for his work on atoms with lasers, Chu was a new­comer to the Wash­ing­ton polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment and the of­ten-treach­er­ous nom­in­a­tion pro­cess. At the time, Utech was a 10-year vet­er­an of the Sen­ate where he worked on en­ergy and en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues. Utech talked this week with Na­tion­al Journ­al’s George E. Con­don Jr. about the im­port­ance of prop­erly pre­par­ing a nom­in­ee for con­firm­a­tion hear­ings.

No doubt you watch this year’s con­firm­a­tion hear­ings dif­fer­ently. Does it make you nos­tal­gic and wish you were back pre­par­ing some­body?

It was an ex­cit­ing pro­cess to be part of. There is a lot to do in a short peri­od of time. You are try­ing to get the nom­in­ee ac­quain­ted with the de­part­ment that he or she has been chosen to lead, to in­tro­duce them to the Sen­ate in gen­er­al and to the sen­at­ors in par­tic­u­lar on the com­mit­tee that has jur­is­dic­tion. And at the same time, they are also work­ing with the trans­ition team to fa­mil­i­ar­ize them­selves in de­tail with the work­ings of the de­part­ment. And, of course, you’re work­ing with the nom­in­ee to un­der­stand his re­cords and put all that to­geth­er to pre­pare for private meet­ings with sen­at­ors as well as the pub­lic hear­ings.

Nom­in­ees are usu­ally highly suc­cess­ful people be­fore they come to Wash­ing­ton. Do they ever res­ist your help and the things you ask them to do?

I think it var­ies. I think most nom­in­ees are pretty re­cept­ive to the ad­vice and the as­sist­ance they get from the trans­ition team and the con­firm­a­tion teams. That was my ex­per­i­ence.

What is the most im­port­ant thing you did in 2009 to pre­pare your nom­in­ee?

The hear­ing it­self is the biggest mo­ment for any nom­in­ee. Most nom­in­ees are giv­en a fair amount of de­fer­ence and so the hear­ing is an im­port­ant mo­ment where your goal is to get through it without cre­at­ing any ad­verse news or without a lot of con­flict or con­tro­versy. So there is a lot of time and at­ten­tion spent on pre­par­ing for that event. And there is a lot that goes in­to that. That is the most im­port­ant mo­ment.

When you are prep­ping some­body who is new to Wash­ing­ton and new to the Sen­ate, how crit­ic­al is tak­ing them around and ar­ran­ging for them to have private chats with each mem­ber of the com­mit­tee?

It’s really im­port­ant. It was an op­por­tun­ity to forge a bit of a per­son­al bond and to hear privately what are some of the con­cerns and is­sues of in­terest to in­di­vidu­al sen­at­ors be­fore the hear­ing. I really think it is vi­tal. It is also an in­tro­duc­tion to the cul­ture of the place, to com­mu­nic­ate how in­di­vidu­al sen­at­ors see the world and see the de­part­ment in par­tic­u­lar. And, of course, de­pend­ing on the de­part­ment, there are both na­tion­al is­sues and pa­ro­chi­al is­sues that may be of im­port­ance to sen­at­ors. So those meet­ings of­ten give the nom­in­ee a good sense of both of those things.

You fam­ously put your nom­in­ee through mock hear­ings, of­ten called “murder boards.” Why?

I think it’s im­port­ant. The hope and the goal is that the mock hear­ing is harder than the real thing. So it’s im­port­ant to get a group of people that know the is­sues well, that know the com­mit­tee well and knows the mem­bers and their in­di­vidu­al in­terests. You can really have at it. And, in many cases, the hear­ing it­self is then easi­er than the mock hear­ings.

When watch­ing the ac­tu­al hear­ing, did you find your­self say­ing that you were tough­er on him than the com­mit­tee was?

It’s the biggest, most im­port­ant sin­gu­lar mo­ment in the pro­cess after the an­nounce­ment of the nom­in­a­tion it­self and the re­ac­tion to that. It’s the single most im­port­ant mo­ment. Of course you are a little nervous and your nom­in­ee is a little nervous. But my ex­per­i­ence was that the hear­ing it­self, while it was, of course, the real thing, the ques­tions were not as chal­len­ging as posed in some of the mock hear­ings we had.

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