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 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.
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.
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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