If you were looking for Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz this week, you might want to consult the 2014 electoral map of endangered Democrats as a guide.
Mr. Moniz toured Louisiana’s Gulf Coast oil and gas operations to assure the industry the administration supported its growth even as the president rolls out his climate change agenda. At his side was Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in this fall’s election.
Mr. Moniz followed up Thursday by announcing the loosening of regulations governing exports of liquefied natural gas, one of the pet issues of Ms. Landrieu and another vulnerable energy-state Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska.
And on Friday, the nation’s energy chief heads to Colorado, where he’ll appear with yet another endangered Democrat, Sen. Mark Udall.
Mr. Moniz’s schedule is just one sign of the Obama administration’s concerted effort to use the levers of government to prop up its chances of keeping a Democrat-controlled Senate in November.
From grants to visits, even the declaration of a new national monument, the Obama administration has flexed its muscle — and opened the purse strings — in recent weeks to help its party incumbents in what is shaping up to be a tough re-election battle for Democrats.
It’s an age-old practice for the administration in power to use its control of government to help its electoral chances, even though federal laws like the Hatch Act prohibit the direct expenditure of federal monies on campaign activities.
When George W. Bush was president, internal emails surfaced showing his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, orchestrated a detailed plan to use federal resources and Cabinet officers to help GOP candidates.
Likewise, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was cited by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel for violating the Hatch Act during the 2012 election after giving a partisan speech on an official government trip. She was ordered to refund the government for the cost of her airfare.
And Congress has investigated President Obama’s White House political affairs office recently for straying too far into electoral politics on the taxpayer’s dime. The president temporarily disbanded the office but recently restored it to action, to the dismay of some GOP lawmakers.
The gray area that both parties have exploited for years is the strategic targeting of official announcements and grants to cities and states where members of their party can benefit from the high-profile announcement just as elections are approaching.
While certain officials such as the secretaries of state and defense are legally restricted from campaign activity, other high-profile Cabinet members have the ability to help out candidates in need.
“The secretaries of labor, energy, HHS, etc. have the ability to appear in political contexts, but they also have the power to ensure that money goes to the right places and the ability to make sure the announcements come at the right time,” said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies with the Brookings Institution.
Mr. Hudak is the author of “Presidential Pork,” a book that examines presidential efforts to control federal spending and accumulate electoral rewards from that power.
Other experts argue it’s almost impossible for a Cabinet secretary to completely avoid any activity that creates a political appearance.
“These sound like trips that can be justified as official business, although they were obviously scheduled with political considerations in mind,” said Michael Barone, resident fellow in American politics at the American Enterprise Institute.
“This has been done by many administrations for many years. The general rule is that if official business is done, it can be paid for by the government. Obviously it would be impossible to limit officials’ appearances to those which could not possibly have any positive political impact,” he added.
The Obama administration has provided plenty of examples in recent weeks, almost all of them involving Democratic candidates key to keeping the party’s control of the Senate.
Last month, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez went to Iowa for an official visit to a Job Corps training center and gave a speech. He then campaigned in Iowa with retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Bruce L. Braley, the Democrat seeking to succeed Mr. Harkin in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country.
The three campaigned to promote minimum wage increases, even wearing T-shirts with the slogan “$10.10 #Raise the wage” that made a great photo opportunity for the local newspaper.
Cookstoves and Colorado
Colorado has gotten some of the most sustained attention from the administration in recent weeks.
When Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy handed out research grants earlier this week to study ways to make cleaner cookstoves, a third of the research grants went to universities in Colorado, where Mr. Udall, who has been a major proponent of the environment, is in a tough battle to win re-election to the Senate.
And on Friday, Mr. Udall gets a personal visit from Energy Secretary Moniz, where the two will appear together at the “Colorado Energy Forum” at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.
Just days earlier, President Obama announced that he was approving a new national monument in New Mexico to protect the Organ Mountains, one of the signature issues of Mr. Udall’s cousin Tom, who also is a Democratic senator up for re-election in New Mexico this fall. The president even singled out Mr. Udall for his support.
Representatives for Mr. Moniz stated that the secretary’s travels were routine trips related to energy concerns.
“Secretary Moniz travels across the country to visit sites that demonstrate innovative energy technologies and to meet with stakeholders on a variety of energy issues,” DOE spokeswoman Aoife McCarthy said.
“As a part of his travels, the secretary regularly meets with or participates in events with governors, members of Congress and other elected officials. Just last month the secretary traveled to Tennessee and Vermont, where he met with elected officials, and throughout the summer he will continue to travel the country, visiting states including Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska,” Ms. McCarthy said, adding that Mr. Moniz extended an invite to the entire Louisiana delegation to attend the Quadrennial Energy Review meeting in Louisiana.
Officials at the EPA also asserted that their funding decisions, including the cookstove grants, had no political basis.
“Political considerations were not at all a determining factor in the awarding of these grants. To imply otherwise would be false,” said EPA press secretary Liz Purchia. “All applications received went through a rigorous, independent and meticulous review process, including an external review from a panel consisting of external experts in the field of study and the agency’s internal review process of program experts. Following this competitive process, six universities were funded in support of the project [and with the] intent and goal to address the research area of residential burning and its effects on human health worldwide through the incorporation of clean-stove technologies.”
Experts say that these efforts to coordinate federal program, grants and visits from high-profile Cabinet members serve as unofficial endorsements where there is political need. And they often can have an impact on voters, Mr. Hudak said.
“When a voter takes a step back and says, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ — hearing that the candidate just delivered a huge multimillion-dollar research grant to the state, that can affect things,” he said.