Tierney, Frank frown on Obama nominee

Ties to conservationists raise fishing worries

John E. Bryson has been picked as commerce secretary, a job that includes oversight of fisheries. John E. Bryson has been picked as commerce secretary, a job that includes oversight of fisheries. (Brendan McDermid/ Reuters)
By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / June 20, 2011

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WASHINGTON — For months, Republicans in the Senate have dug in their heels to block many of President Obama’s appointments. But his recent choice for commerce secretary has provoked skepticism from an unexpected corner of his own party: Massachusetts Democrats who represent fishing communities.

Representatives John F. Tierney of Salem and Barney Frank of Newton have said they are unhappy about nominee John E. Bryson’s long-ago links to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a group that has earned antipathy from fishermen for its efforts to beef up regulation.

“The one area of difference that I’ve had with some of the environmental organizations is that I think they’ve been reflexively antifishing. We have complained about unfair enforcement for a long time, and they’ve tended to dismiss it,’’ said Frank, who represents Fall River and New Bedford. “We were disappointed that they [nominated] this guy.’’

Bryson’s nomination, on which the Senate Commerce Committee will have a hearing tomorrow, is being faulted even though his connection to the environmental group ended in 1974, almost two decades before it became involved in fishing issues.

The two congressmen said they do not oppose Bryson outright, but they call his nomination “troubling,’’ a signal that the Cabinet nomination could become embroiled in the long-simmering acrimony between fishermen and federal regulators.

They have sent a detailed list of fishing-related questions to the Commerce Committee chairman, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia. Because the Senate approves nominations, House members critical of Bryson are pressing their Senate colleagues, including John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, to take a skeptical stance in the hope that they could secure a commitment from Bryson that he will not work against the interests of fishermen.

Senator Scott Brown, who is hosting a town hall meeting in Boston today on the fishing industry, said that he, too, has worries about Bryson.

“Based on his background and past associations, I fear that Mr. Bryson may represent more of the same when it comes to the Commerce Department’s over-regulation of the Massachusetts fishing industry,’’ the Massachusetts Republican said in a statement.

If he wins the commerce post, Bryson would have direct influence over the industry because the National Marine Fisheries Service, which promotes conservation and regulates how much fish are caught, is within the Commerce Department.

The fishing industry added about $2.6 billion to the Massachusetts economy in 2009, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Yet it has been at loggerheads for years with federal regulators and environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, about efforts to replenish depleted fishing stocks off the New England coast. Many fishermen are particularly unhappy with how new fishing quotas are being imposed.

While the criticism of Bryson is unlikely to scuttle the nomination alone, it gives the fishing disputes visibility, said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington. He called the Democrats’ questions about the nominee classic constituency advocacy.

“They’re signaling not just to their constituents, but to the management of the department and the relevant agency within it, that they’re really concerned about this,’’ Mann said. “This is a case where voice can be important.’’

Bryson has a long career that most recently included advising the private equity firm of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. Early in his career, he was president of the California Public Utilities Commission, and he has served in top positions with Edison International. He sits on the boards of numerous education, environmental institutions, and corporations — including Boeing and Walt Disney — and served on the UN Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change.

But the credential that has sparked the most criticism dates back four decades. In 1969, he cofounded the Natural Resources Defense Council while at Yale Law School, then worked as its attorney from 1970 to 1974. Since 1993, the environmental group has advocated for strong fishery management, among other issues, and has brought lawsuits against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the division of the Commerce Department that oversees fisheries.

Edwin Chen, a council spokesman, defended the organization’s record in an e-mail, although he declined to address the criticism leveled at Bryson’s nomination.

“Many vital commercial and recreational fish populations are severely depleted as a result of decades of overfishing,’’ he wrote. “That’s why ending overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks are a top NRDC priority.’’

In response to the concerns raised by Frank and Tierney, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich called Bryson “an excellent nominee’’ with decades of experience in numerous fields.

The commerce department job was a source of bickering long before Bryson’s nomination. In March, 44 Senate Republicans — including Brown — sent a letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid saying they would block any commerce secretary nominee, along with other nominees, until trade deals were completed with Colombia and Panama.

After Obama nominated Bryson on May 31, conservative Republican Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma promptly vowed to defeat the nomination, calling Bryson “founder of a radical environmental organization.’’ Other Republicans, such as Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, have joined Inhofe in opposing Bryson.

Almost as swiftly, the nomination took an unusual turn. The day after Obama introduced Bryson at a White House ceremony, Tierney and Frank slammed the White House for not consulting with members of Congress who have long held that the government, with support of environmental groups, has instituted strong-arm policies that harmed the fishing industry.

“For the president to nominate someone for the position of secretary of commerce, without consultation with those of us most concerned with fairness for fishing, and for the NRDC membership to be listed as one of his major qualifications is troubling,’’ the two lawmakers said.

Frank said while he is a liberal and an environmentalist, the council is among groups that have dismissed fishermen’s concerns. He said he raised questions because the White House had so prominently touted Bryson’s links to the council.

“Liberals should be particularly concerned about this,’’ he said of the federal government’s treatment of fishermen. “It’s one of worst examples of arbitrary law enforcement, punitive law enforcement. We want to get his attention on this.’’

Kerry, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, met with Bryson on June 15 and said in a statement they had a “direct and candid exchange about the difficulties our fishermen have had on enforcement and federal regulations.’’

He didn’t indicate whether he supported Bryson, but he said that the next secretary will need to rebuild trust with the fishing industry, and “we need the department to be an ally.’’

“I’ll keep these issues on the front burner during the confirmation process,’’ Kerry said.

Theo Emery can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @temery.