Dysfunctional politics continues to stall confirmation of TVA Board nominees

Political postering and back-door procedures are keeping TVA Board appointments from being confirmed by the Senate and leaving Valley residents in the lurch.

Political posturing and back-door procedures are keeping TVA Board appointments from being confirmed by the Senate.

Nearly a year after President Obama nominated four people to fill vacant seats on TVA’s Board of Directors, and 6 months after the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously approved the nominations, it seems backdoor politics and partisan bickering are keeping the Board nominees from final confirmation by the Senate.

We see no reason for confirmation of these appointees to be controversial.  All are well qualified and each testified to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works about their commitment to the people of the Valley and their desire to move TVA towards a leadership position among the Southeastern utilities.  Unfortunately, dysfunctional politics, having nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominees, is stalling final confirmation by the full Senate.

The irony is that when the TVA Act was amended in 2005 to change the Board from 3 full-time members to 9 part-time members, the primary justification was to remove the politics that had permeated the Board and its appointments for several years.  Apparently, the current Senate didn’t get the message.

The "secret hold" has allowed several senators to halt the confirmation of nominees to the TVA Board over the past year.

The use of a "secret hold" allows one senator to stall the political process without repercussions.

The political maneuver that is primarily responsible for the delay is the “secret hold” that allows a single senator to anonymously stall presidential appointments and legislation.  It is an archaic process that corrupts the political process and leads to greater governmental dysfunction.  A look back at the last year reveals how these secret holds and other political shenanigans have turned the TVA Board appointment process into a platform for useless political posturing, leaving Valley residents as collateral victims.

Initially,  sources revealed that Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee placed (or threatened to place) a hold on the TVA Board appointments to strongarm the Obama administration into re-appointing Bill Sansom to the TVA Board.  No offense to Mr. Sansom, but after the past 5 years of TVA mediocrity, Valley residents would be better served by some fresh perspectives on the TVA Board.

Then it was Senator Cochran of Mississippi who used an anonymous hold to protest the lack of Mississippi representation on the TVA Board.  Ironically enough, it was Senator Alexander who supposedly worked a deal that resulted in Senator Cochran removing his hold.

At other points throughout the year, the nominees have been held up for reasons having nothing to do with TVA, whether it was Alabama senator Richard Shelby’s hold to protest a decision not to build Air Force facilities in Alabama, or Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnel’s objection to a vote to confirm 80 nominations, including the TVA Board nominees, due to his objection to President Obama’s choice for appointment to the National Labor Relations Board.

All the while, the citizens of the Valley wait, and TVA struggles to make important business decisions with only a skeleton crew at the helm.

Mr. Thrailkill will be forced to step down from the TVA Board at the end of the Congressional session, leaving only four Board members to continue TVA business.

Mr. Thrailkill will step down from the TVA Board at the end of the Congressional session, leaving only four Board members to continue TVA business.

As the end of the current Congressional session looms near — summer sessions typically wind up in October — The need for these nominees to be confirmed grows more pressing.  According to the TVA Act, a Board member whose term has expired is allowed to remain on the Board until his successor takes office or until the end of the Congressional session in which his term expired.  Howard Thrailkill, whose TVA Board seat expired in May of this year, has been taking advantage of this provision, allowing a quorum of Board members (defined by the TVA Act as five Board members) to vote on TVA matters.  However, Mr. Thrailkill will be forced to step down at the end of this session, leaving only four Board members remaining.

Having a quorum of Board members present to vote on TVA matters is critical to TVA being able to effectively meet the energy demands of the Valley.  According to the TVA Bylaws, during a period when the Board has fewer than five members, the Board can exercise power to continue in the daily course of business, but the Board does not have the authority to direct TVA into new areas of activity, to embark on new programs, or to change TVA’s existing direction.

Exactly where the line sits between TVA’s daily course of business and “new areas of activity” is uncertain.  However, TVA’s integrated resource planning (IRP) process is nearing completion of a draft strategy to meet energy demand through 2029.  This strategy will almost certainly include new programs and new areas of activity for TVA, and will hopefully change TVA’s direction away from the dirty coal-fired generation that it has relied on for the past 50 years.   It will be critical that a fully functioning Board is in place to consider and vote on this new strategy.

Because the current nominees have been appointed by the president and approved by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, it stands to reason that we should expect confirmation by the full Senate soon.  In fact, we rightfully expected it several months ago.  Unfortunately, there is still an anonymous hold on these appointments.

Sources indicate that Alabama senator Jeff Sessions is behind the current secret hold that is delaying the confirmation of TVA Board nominees.

Sources indicate that Alabama senator Jeff Sessions is behind the current secret hold that is delaying the confirmation of TVA Board nominees.

Because it’s anonymous, we can’t say for sure who retains the hold on the TVA Board nominees, but sources indicate that Alabama senator Jeff Sessions is the likely culprit.  He is angry because the TVA Board, with Howard Thrailkill leaving his position, will not have an Alabama representative.  We would hope that after 13 years in the Senate that Senator Sessions would recognize that the respectable course of action is to acknowledge the impressive credentials of the current nominees, allow them to be confirmed, and then identify well-qualified individuals that could represent Alabama in the next round of Board appointments — three which will take place in 2011.

The call for nominee confirmations is getting louder and louder as TVA approaches its August 20th meeting where it will vote on the 2011 budget, and possibly make critical decisions regarding the future of TVA, including whether to move forward on the construction of nuclear reactors (and which reactor design to move forward with) at the Bellefonte nuclear site.

It’s a sad commentary on how far our national politics have sunk when one senator is able to hold the entire Tennessee Valley hostage at such a critical time for TVA.  Getting the current nominees confirmed by the Senate in time for them to take part in the IRP process should be a top priority for senators from TVA-served states and for the Valley residents that will be living with the TVA Board’s decisions for years to come.

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It is so amusing to see a politically driven group such as SACE accuse others of exactly the same thing it is doing.

Through its speculations, really just rumors, SACE bounces from one to the other not having an iota of why the hold on many of Obama’s nominations; and then to give the paltry reasons why it is so important for the four TVA nominations be confirmed is patently laughable.

At the same time, SACE casts aspersions on the sitting board members as if they were merely stooges without the ability to make decisions, important ones or not. The board now has the authority and power to make any kind of moves, directions, or changes it wishes with the present five member board, no need to wait for anyone.

TVA was a mess before the new board structure went into effect from 3 to 9 members in 2005 and the change has brought on even more mismanagements and monumentally costly mistakes.

The problem is not the number of members needed to make a quorum, (5); three directors were quite comfortable making board decisions for the first 72 years; no, the problem is the TVA itself. How can you suggest that a nine-member board is less political than the old triumvirate members? It is not the tooth fairy who makes the nominations.

The TVA structure not only does not conform to the present TVA Act, it greatly warps it to go far beyond its original meaning. Outdated, the TVA model is the one that is dysfunctional and it cannot be repaired by four more or even nine new board members.

Throw in the eminent domain power it has with the dictatorial power it has, without appeal, to set electricity rates and you have what has turned out to be an uncontrollable federal monolith. The new staff structure has made millionaires of some and very high salaries for others.

Add the outrageous bonuses when there is a call for belt tightening and you can see that TVA has leaned far too heavily on their ratepayers, the ones who pay all of TVA’s bills. If the ratepayers were the stockholders, they would have thrown out the board and top management long ago.

As an agenda driven organization, it is understandable for SACE to push for what best meets the needs of its membership but we sometimes forget that even though the TVA sits in one geographical area in the U.S., all American citizens have a stake in TVA because of its huge debt that may become just another stimulus bailout. How about another $26 billion? Sound familiar?

Ernest Norsworthy

Comment by Ernest Norsworthy on August 11, 2010 8:54 pm

Ernest, I am glad I could amuse you. However, I do disagree with most of your accusations. I am not accusing others of doing the same thing that our organization does. Our job would be quite a bit easier if we could place anonymous holds on appointments and legislation.

I would also disagree with your contention that I offer only rumors and speculation. The hold on President Obama’s appointments is well documented. We are forced to speculate in certain instances, but those speculations are not unfounded. In our 25 years of advocating for clean energy, we have managed to develop a few channels of information that we prefer not to reveal.

I would encourage you to read my post again — I do not cast aspersions on the sitting board members. They have proven time and again over the past 5 years the ability to make decisions, both good and bad. The point I make is that the perspectives of the Board nominees will be valuable to the decisions that the Board faces in the near future, and for the current Board to make those decisions without those new perspectives does a disservice to TVA’s constituents. One of the best attributes of the 9-member board is the ablility to include multiple perspectives in the decision making process.

Your contention that there is no need for the current Board to wait for anyone before making decisions, while technically accurate, misses the point. It’s not what the Board can legally do, it what it should do to protect the interests of the people it serves — namely the 9 million ratepayers of the Tennessee Valley.

The remainder of you post seems more a rant on TVA in general than anything particularly relevant to my blog. I think there are several things that we can agree on, including ineffective oversight and a potentially serious financial situation. I think, however, that we would take very different paths towards remedying these issues.

I would note, however, that both the TVA Act and every bond issuance published by TVA explicitly states that TVA’s debt is not backed by the federal government. So your contention that TVA’s huge debt may become another “stimulus bailout” is really just informed speculation, which, if I read you correctly, is how I got you started on this rant in the first place.

A final comment: as an agenda driven organization, pushing for what best meets the needs of our membership is not only understandable, it is why we are here. And we thank all our members for supporting our efforts.

Comment by Sam Gomberg on August 12, 2010 5:14 pm

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