What is certain: Electric cooperatives will have a busy agenda as the new Congress and administration gear up.
What is less certain: Pretty much everything else.
That’s a good shorthand for understanding why co-ops are covering all the bases in support of their 42 million members as the 115th Congress convenes.
“While we have some ideas about how the year will unfold in Washington, we are going to be making sure we look for opportunities to advance our members’ agenda every step of the way,” said Kirk Johnson, senior NRECA vice president, government relations.
“The word I want to stress is ‘patience,’ especially in the regulatory relief area. The kinds of things that are going to be meaningful to us will take a while to develop and won’t always happen overnight.”
Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time since 2007. The House of Representatives has 55 new members, and, eventually, agencies with which NRECA does business will have hundreds of new top appointees.
While Republicans have a solid 59-seat majority in the House, they have a narrow 52-48 majority in the Senate, which means swing-state Democrats could be very important on certain issues.
Recognizing that a Supreme Court nomination fight could bog down the Senate for weeks, here are some of the early action items on the Hill:
Regulatory relief: The House has already passed the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017, aimed at reining in federal rulemaking. NRECA backed the measure, which also includes provisions to ensure that agencies consider the impact of regulations on co-ops and other small businesses.
Employee benefits: Co-ops want to make sure Congress gets rid of the 40 percent “Cadillac excise tax” on health benefits. The issue arose during the confirmation hearing for Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. “The tax has been delayed until 2020, but we need a permanent solution to prevent a devastating impact on co-ops and their employees,” Johnson said.
Broadband: The Senate Commerce Committee has already reported one bipartisan bill to advance rural broadband. “Broadband is more about a broader rural agenda. We are helping to lend a voice about the general need for broadband in rural America,” Johnson said.
Budget: President Trump will present his first budget to Congress in February, covering subjects such as funding for the Rural Utilities Service. “New administrations always present a very barebones budget,” Johnson cautioned. “We’ll be paying attention to make sure the things important to us are treated properly.”
As the year goes on, issues like the Farm Bill and cybersecurity also are likely to gain attention, Johnson said.
Inevitably, some unexpected issues will arise and force co-ops to play defense.
“We have to be nimble and alert,” Johnson said. “If something comes up out of the blue, we have to be able to respond to it.”
Steven Johnson is a staff writer for NRECA.