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.