With academics in top slots, some see need for D.C. experience

President Obama tapped another heavily credentialed academic for a top Energy Department slot yesterday, prompting speculation that the vacant DOE deputy secretary's post -- the department's No. 2 slot -- might go to an experienced Washington hand.

The White House announced Obama's intention to nominate Kristina Johnson to the undersecretary position, where she will oversee renewable energy and efficiency programs, as well as coal and nuclear energy programs.

Johnson, an electrical engineer, is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs of Johns Hopkins University and before that was dean of Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering from 1999 until 2007.

Johnson is the second academic pulled in from beyond the Washington power structure. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, had been the director of DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and before that was on the Stanford University faculty.

In contrast, President George W. Bush stayed inside the Beltway to find his first DOE secretary, Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), who had just lost a re-election bid to Democrat Debbie Stabenow. Bush's second Energy secretary was Samuel Bodman, a high-ranking Treasury Department and Commerce Department official, although Bodman was also a chemical engineer with experience in academia and business before coming to Washington.


Obama's choice to look beyond Washington for DOE is being praised.

Robert Alvarez, who was a senior policy adviser at DOE from 1993 to 1999, said Johnson's lack of Washington experience could be helpful. "You are coming in without certain suppositions about the way things should be," said Alvarez, who is now at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

He added, "One of the problems with DOE is that it is an insular society. It almost becomes an echo chamber. It is good to have outside people come in who are not part of that dynamic, who are independent thinkers and can be forceful managers." Johnson's predecessor was a longtime Capitol Hill aide before joining DOE.

But going around the traditional Washington power structure for top DOE posts has its pitfalls.

For example, Chu raised eyebrows in some of his first comments to reporters last month when he said he was uncertain of the U.S. stance about OPEC production.

And in the future, Chu and Johnson and other top DOE officials must shepherd DOE's budget proposals through Congress. Even with a Democratic majority friendly to the administration, Congress remains a minefield of competing interests and priorities for officials with limited political experience.

Indeed, many observers see Obama choosing someone with more Washington experience for DOE deputy secretary. Some names floated for the post would fit this definition. For instance, Sue Tierney, the former DOE assistant secretary for policy under President Bill Clinton who was also a Massachusetts utility commissioner, was believed to be in the running for the slot before pulling herself from contention. Tierney, currently a managing principal at the strategic consulting firm Analysis Group, was a part of President Obama's energy and environment transition team.

Norm Ornstein, a government expert with the American Enterprise Institute, called the selection of Johnson a sign that the deputy secretary role will go to somebody with more political experience. "It is usually a good idea to have someone with a connection to the political process within the upper reaches."

Ornstein added that Johnson's choice is another sign of the administration's desire to elevate the role of science.

Critical time for DOE

Johnson, if confirmed by the Senate, would arrive at DOE as the recently enacted economic stimulus package is funneling large sums of cash through the department for conservation and alternative energy programs. "She [Johnson] has a very large set of responsibilities and expectations heaped on her," Alvarez said.

The stimulus funnels more than $30 billion to and through DOE. Examples include $5 billion steered to the states for efficient homes and buildings, $4.5 billion for projects to modernize the electric grid, $2 billion in grants for manufacture of advanced batteries, and $6 billion to support $60 billion worth of loan guarantees for renewable energy and transmission projects.

The stimulus funding comes on top of existing loan guarantee authority for DOE.

According to an analysis by Alvarez, DOE now has authority to provide $131 billion in federal loan guarantees for financing a range of nuclear, renewable, coal, auto and other projects.

"The U.S. government is making a huge investment in the energy market," he said. "This is really unprecedented."

Dan Weiss of the Center for American Progress noted that Johnson and Chu have significant management experience in addition to their academic work.

"It is not like [Chu] came from a cyclotron and was dropped into DOE. He ran Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, which has 4,000 employees and a half-billion-dollar budget," Weiss said. He also noted that having a lab director and engineer makes sense in order to help "innovate to a clean energy economy."

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