The confirmation hearings for secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson begin Wednesday, and one thing is certain: The wheels have already been thoroughly greased by campaign donations from the oil and gas industry.
Though Tillerson might not have held office before, he’s hardly a Washington outsider. His company, Exxon Mobil, and the broader oil industry over the past six years (the length of a Senate term) have poured $4.6 million in campaign contributions to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — some of the very people conducting the hearings. Of that sum, the vast majority ($4,063,612) went to the 11 Republicans on the committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The oil and gas industry has nearly doubled the political dollars it has piped into lobby firms and campaign coffers over the past decade. Tillerson himself presided over Exxon’s lobbying operation, which in 2016 alone spent $8.8 million on lobbying, more any other oil and gas company.
While many big industries like financial services have made it their practice to donate generously to both political parties, oil and gas has held steady by disproportionately giving to Republicans. This past election, the industry donated $50.9 million to Republicans and only $6 million to Democrats.
Now, the oil and gas industry is poised to see one of its own become one of the most powerful people in the Trump administration.
“The average American can’t cut million-dollar checks to their elected officials,” said Andre Delattre, executive director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a left-leaning consumer advocacy group organizing for campaign finance reform. “The oil and gas industry can. When we allow for unlimited contributions in our elections, we hand unlimited influence to wealthy interests.”
The senators on the Foreign Relations Committee have not been overlooked amid all that giving. For every Republican on the committee, the oil and gas industry is one of their top 20 industry contributors.
That doesn’t mean Tillerson’s confirmation will be automatic. He will certainly face tough questions about his friendliness with Vladimir Putin in light of Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential election. Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are not on the committee, have voiced skepticism on those grounds.
Democrats, who have little to lose in terms of campaign donations from oil and gas, are likely to grill Tillerson about times he acted at odds with the State Department, as happened when he pursued a deal with the Kurdish regional government in Iraq in 2011. While Tillerson’s confirmation could still be derailed, the money is very much on his side.