Top Committee Staffer Knows Science, Politics

Posted May 29, 2009 at 11:15am

A former Democratic staffer offers the following advice for those called to the bargaining table with Bob Simon: Come prepared.

The former aide recalls Simon, the Democratic staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as a “tenacious— and “dogged— negotiator whose command of the facts wears down opposing viewpoints through attrition.

“He’s one of the brightest staffers around in terms of understanding the intersection of energy policy and the science,— said the aide, who now works in the private sector. “He’s a great advocate for his boss and displays a lot of tenacity.—

Even among the legions of Capitol Hill overachievers, Simon’s background stands out as particularly well-suited for his role as the top staffer on a committee that oversees highly complex issues at a pivotal moment in the debate over energy policy.

Upon completing a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982, Simon spent seven years overseeing research on chemical engineering at the National Academy of Sciences. In 1989 he moved over to the Department of Energy, where he quickly became a technical adviser to the Energy secretary.

In 1993 the Department of Energy loaned him to the Senate, where over the next five years he floated between the Energy and Joint Economic committees, as well as the personal staff of his current boss, Energy Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). Simon eventually left the executive branch and has served as the top Democratic staffer on the Energy Committee since 1999 — the year Bingaman became the top Democrat on the committee. In 2006, he was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his efforts to integrate science with public policy.

In a recent interview, Simon said he’s seen policy priorities come and go with Energy chairmen over his 15-year Congressional career. For example, retired Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) championed nuclear power as chairman, while Bingaman has focused on promoting renewable sources and energy efficiency.

But the underlying principles of an effective energy policy remain unchanged.

Ensuring affordable and adequate energy supplies, keeping a focus on efficiency, maintaining properly functioning energy markets, and striking the right balance between energy production and environmental protection “have been constants in energy policy,— Simon said.

With the United States poised to cap carbon dioxide and mandate the production of renewable energy nationwide — measures that will transform the way energy is produced and consumed — Simon said a chief focus of the committee’s work is on promoting new clean energy technologies.

“Getting new technologies demonstrated at scale and getting the financing and the regulatory policies mobilized for that is really the biggest challenge— for energy and climate policy, he said.

Building political support for energy legislation is no small task either, considering that energy policy generally breaks along regional, rather than partisan, lines. Simon has been at the center of months of tough negotiations with both Democrats and Republicans over a comprehensive energy bill that still remains mired in the committee. A key sticking point is a renewable energy standard that is opposed by most Republicans and moderate Democrats, although it now appears the bill will squeak through the committee with the provision intact.

However, Simon said the regional nature of the energy debate can be liberating as well. “It means you’re not automatically trapped into a partisan discussion,— he said.

As the top Democratic staffer on the Senate committee of jurisdiction, Simon has played a key role in shaping the comprehensive energy bills signed into law in 2005 and 2007. But among his proudest accomplishments is his work on a 2000 law that created a program to compensate federal workers sickened by their work on nuclear weapons.

Simon said the measure allowed a rare opportunity to “shape public policy in a very direct and personal way— across party lines. “That was kind of the Senate at its bipartisan best,— he said.