Partisan politics stalls TVA

Partisan politics stalls TVA

December 12th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters and TVA logo

Photo by Miranda Harple

Partisan gamesmanship in politics has consequences. Tennessee's U.S. senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker surely know that, yet it didn't stop them from slow-walking President Obama's picks this year for five new board members for TVA's nine-member board. As a result, it looks like the board won't be able to muster a quorum to conduct official business for a while after the turn of the year, just when a new CEO from an investor-owned electric power company is scheduled to take the reins. Ratepayers in TVA's seven-state region of 9 million citizens are the ones who stand to get short-changed in the political chess game on the agency's leadership.

The pending interregnum in TVA's leadership changes didn't have to happen. President Obama submitted a nominee to the Senate for one board vacancy last February, and for four more since September. Though Sen. Alexander is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee responsible for moving the nominations forward for routine Senate approval, he apparently did little to push the new slate of nominees to the Senate floor for a vote. Instead, he and Corker argue that the Obama administration was late to get the names to them, and they haven't enough time to vet them.

That's baloney -- and lame cover for the apparent reality. The fact is, both senators hoped to have a different president in January. They were hoping that they could toss Obama's nominees and get Mitt Romney to offer a new slate of Republicans for the TVA board. True, the TVA board isn't supposed to be partisan, but since congressional Republicans got the board expanded from three to nine members in 2006, Republicans have largely ruled it.

Obama's most recent picks may have changed the tilt, but it's not reasonable to suggest that they are unqualified or need extensive research to confirm their qualifications. Marilyn Brown, a current member, is a Georgia Tech professor, a distinguished visiting scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on an intergovernmental panel on climate change. Lynn Evans is a CPA and board member of Memphis Light, Gas and Water, one of TVA's biggest power distributors. Peter Mahurin is chairman of Hilliard Lyons Financial Services and a board member of five large banking and industrial companies. Joe Ritch, an attorney, is chairman of the Tennessee Valley committee on military base realignment and co-chairman of the Tennessee Valley Growth Coordination Group. Michael McWherter, former gubernatorial candidate, is businessman and lawyer whose focus is banking and administrative law.

The problem now is that Alexander and Corker's disinterest in pushing the nominees toward confirmation means that incoming CEO Bill Johnson will have to delay bringing major issues to the TVA board until new members can be installed. That's regrettable. TVA is weighing multi-billion-dollar nuclear plant cost and operations issues; the prospect of investing $1.2 billion to scrub a heavily polluting coal plant that was scheduled to be closed; and crunch decisions on whether and how to pursue alternative and renewable power, among other things. Partisan politics shouldn't prevail over such critical public issues.