Treasury Nominee Expected to Ace Confirmation Hearing

President Obama's nominee for Treasury Secretary, Jacob Lew President Obama's nominee for Treasury Secretary, Jacob Lew Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Jacob Lew is nothing if not prepared.

If the Obama administration’s critics are bracing for the possibility of a gaffe or off-message comment from the nominee for Treasury secretary, they could be waiting a long time. Lew, a veteran of confirmation hearings and budget fights, doesn’t get flustered easily, and he will be working with a team of senior Treasury and White House officials to prepare for the grilling he will face at his Senate confirmation hearing. Lew will testify on Wednesday at 10 a.m. before the Senate Finance Committee.

“He’s really a very well-prepared nominee for his job,” said Phillip Swagel, who served as Treasury’s assistant secretary for economic policy under President George W. Bush.

Nominees typically receive giant briefing books to study up on the relevant issues and endure two or three “murder boards,” practice hearings designed to shore up answers, prepare nominees for tough questions, and give staff the opportunity to criticize and grill senior officials, according to former officials involved on both sides of the preparations.

“It’s intense and frenetic and exhaustive,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who served as deputy Treasury secretary under President Clinton.

But Lew has spent decades preparing. A 30-year veteran of budget battles, he most recently served as President Obama’s chief of staff, guiding negotiations on a variety of fiscal issues. Lew has twice served as director of the Office of Management and Budget, once under Obama and before that under President Clinton. But even all that experience doesn’t cover the breadth of what Treasury does.

The biggest shock to a nominee is the range of issues the department is responsible for, said Tony Fratto, who has helped prepare three Treasury secretaries and roughly 40 officials in all for confirmation hearings during his time as a Bush administration Treasury and White House official.

“You need to be knowledgeable about everything from our sanctions programs on Iran and North Korea, but also the travel ban and spending ban on Cuba,” said Fratto, who is now managing partner at the communications strategy firm Hamilton Place Strategies. Few nominees expect to carry the mantle on an administration’s Cuba policy, he said, “but that’s what happens, because you run the program.”

And that’s where experts say the opportunity may come to trip up Lew: international issues. Though he spent two years at the State Department, Treasury’s international operations—sanctions programs, managing the economic relationship with China, etc.—can be incredibly complicated.

“I would expect someone trying to trip him up on one of those more esoteric questions,” said Stan Collender, a former longtime House and Senate Budget panel staffer who is now a director of financial communications with Qorvis Communications.

And just because Lew is a budget veteran, don’t expect Republicans to hold back. Senators have vowed to press him on his stint at Citigroup, an offshore account in which he was once invested, and his role in past fiscal talks.

The hearing may be tough, but with few surprises expected, Lew is expected to sail to confirmation.

This article appeared in the Tuesday, February 12, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.

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