Commerce secretary nominee John Bryson becomes pawn in political chess match

Reporting from Washington

Tapping a respected Southern California businessman as the next Commerce secretary seemed an astute move by President Obama to mend fences with corporate America, but former Edison International Chief Executive John Bryson still faces a rocky road for confirmation.

Heading into a Senate hearing Tuesday, Bryson, 67, has become a pawn in a hyper-partisan Washington political chess match that has left dozens of nominees on hold.

Nearly all Senate Republicans have vowed to block his confirmation unless the White House advances three pending free trade deals.


Another Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has promised to hold up the nomination until Obama speaks out against a National Labor Relations Board complaint that accuses Boeing Co. of building a non-union assembly plant in his state in retaliation for union strikes. Bryson had served on Boeing’s board before recently stepping down because of his nomination.

But on top of those problems, Bryson himself has drawn surprisingly vocal opposition from several Republicans. They object to some of his environmental views and his role more than 40 years ago in co-founding an organization they despise, the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“To me, he’s not qualified to be secretary of Commerce at a time when we have 9.1% unemployment,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of his party’s leadership.

Barrasso circulated a one-page memo to his colleagues this month that outlines reasons to oppose Bryson’s nomination. Among them were “founding an extreme environmental organization” and “advocating job-crushing energy taxes.”


Bryson is expected to face some tough questioning Tuesday when the Senate Commerce Committee considers his nomination.

His favorable comments about a 2009 House bill to address climate change through a controversial system of emissions limits that are allocated to companies as permits that could be sold to other firms, a procedure known as cap and trade, were unpopular with many Republicans.

The comments could even raise concerns from the committee’s Democratic chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, who comes from the coal-producing state of West Virginia.

Bryson’s supporters have started rallying around his nomination. And the White House remains confident that he ultimately will be approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate.


“John Bryson is an excellent nominee who will draw on decades of leadership experience in a range of fields, from major corporations to nonprofits and government agencies,” White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said. “That wealth of experience will create new jobs and make America more competitive in a global economy.”

But hopes for a quick confirmation are fading.

Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), called Republican attempts to block Bryson’s nomination “shameful … at a time when job creation is our biggest priority.”

The key hurdle is unrelated to Bryson’s background. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been haggling over whether to renew aid to dislocated U.S. workers as part of legislation to approve pending free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Republicans want those deals sent to Congress for approval without renewing aid to displaced U.S. workers.


In March, 44 of the 47 Senate Republicans — enough to mount a successful filibuster — publicly vowed to block any Commerce secretary nominee until the trade deals were sent to Congress and Obama promised to sign the legislation.

The threat came after Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was nominated to be ambassador to China. Locke remains in his old job as he awaits a vote on his nomination to the new post, which also is caught in the confirmation backlog.

Democrats have touted Bryson’s wide-ranging career as a strength. As a young environmental lawyer, he helped found the NRDC in 1970. He then moved on to government, serving as head of the California State Water Resources Control Board from 1976 to 1979, and as president of the California Public Utilities Commission from 1979 to 1982.

He joined Southern California Edison as vice president in 1984 and worked for the utility and its parent, Edison International in Rosemead, for nearly a quarter of a century. He spent 18 of those years as chief executive before stepping down in 2008.


Supporters such as Ken Duberstein, who served as White House chief of staff to President Reagan, said those varied experiences make Bryson an excellent choice to head the Commerce Department.

“He will bring considerable business skills and a keen understanding of what it takes to expand the American economy to the president’s Cabinet table,” Duberstein, a Boeing board member as well, wrote in an opinion article Friday in Politico.

But critics have hit Bryson on environmental issues. To many Republicans, the NRDC is a four-letter word. The well-funded and aggressive environmental group has successfully sued governments and businesses, earning the ire of opponents.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) called the NRDC “a radical environmental organization” and has promised to work to defeat Bryson’s nomination because of his ties. Barrasso said the group was “radically anti-business.”


Even some Democrats have raised concerns. Massachusetts Reps. John F. Tierney and Barney Frank said in a joint statement that the Obama administration’s touting of Bryson’s role as a co-founder of NRDC was troubling because of the group’s efforts against the fishing industry in their districts.

But Bryson left the NRDC in 1974, and the organization today is different from in its early years, when its main focus was pushing the landmark Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, said Ralph Cavanagh, the group’s energy program co-director.

“People are acting as if he were somehow an ongoing part of the enterprise,” Cavanagh said. “If you want to criticize Bryson for his NRDC tenure, you’ve got to criticize the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.”

In announcing the nomination, Obama touted Bryson as a “a fierce proponent of alternative energy.”


Barrasso said such advocacy was inappropriate for a potential head of the Commerce Department, which is supposed to advocate for job creation.