Political strategists from both parties told electric cooperative leaders they believe Congress and President-elect Joe Biden can reach a deal to pass an infrastructure package that could include expanded broadband service to rural communities.
“There’s bipartisan agreement that we need to do this to stimulate and grow the economy,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist who spoke at a post-election webinar hosted by NRECA.
“I actually think we have a real chance to get it done,” said Elmendorf, a partner and co-founder of Subject Matter, an advocacy firm in Washington, D.C.
Jack Oliver, former CEO of the Republican National Committee, agreed.
Oliver, now senior policy advisor for Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, said the coronavirus pandemic has shown lawmakers how important it is for children to have access to high-speed internet service to do their schoolwork from home.
“If you don’t have the resources, your kid falls behind—and that is unacceptable,” Oliver said during the Nov. 13 webinar.
NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said he is optimistic that Congress will also pass a pandemic relief package that will help boost co-ops as it lifts the U.S. economy.
NRECA will work with bipartisan champions in Congress to pass the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act, which could save co-ops more than $10 billion by allowing them to reprice loans from the Rural Utilities Service at current low interest rates. The bill would waive any prepayment penalties normally associated with refinancing.
While divided government typically creates legislative gridlock, co-ops won passage last year of two major priorities—the RURAL Act and the SECURE Act—with support from a Democratic-led House and a Republican-led Senate, Matheson said. The key was to create bipartisan support for co-op priorities by reaching out to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“We have a divided government and, in some cases, we have a divided America,” Matheson said. “But we have been able to overcome that with our bipartisan approach. Nobody does that like us on a substantive issue. We need to double down on that and focus on our mission of representing our communities.”
During a question-and-answer session moderated by Louis Finkel, NRECA’s senior vice president of government affairs, the two political analysts said Biden’s plan to reduce climate change will be tempered by the Republican-led Senate and a weakened Democratic majority in the House.
Democrats lost House seats in the Nov. 3 election but held onto their majority, while Republicans are expected to narrowly retain control of the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia in January. At this point, election results show that Republicans have 50 Senate seats and Democrats have 48, including two held by independents who caucus with Democrats.
“You’re not going to see a carbon tax or comprehensive legislative approach to climate,” Elmendorf predicted. Instead, he said, Biden will use his executive power to do as much as he can without Congress, including having the U.S. rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement to combat climate change. President Donald Trump pulled the nation out of the agreement.
Oliver predicted that Republicans will oppose Biden’s plan to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector by 2035 and replace fossil fuels with zero-emission sources such as wind, solar, nuclear, hydropower and biomass. But he cautioned his party that it must be careful not to become categorized as anti-environment by young Americans who supported Biden in part because of his pledge to reduce carbon emissions.
Matheson said NRECA and its members will work to educate more than 60 new members of Congress about issues that affect co-ops and their communities. NRECA has developed a customizable briefing template to explain the co-op model to lawmakers.
“That relationship-building is already underway,” Matheson said.
Elmendorf said it’s also crucial for co-ops to get to know the staffs of their new members of Congress—particularly in local district offices. “That’s critically important to ensure you’re in a good position no matter who won those seats,” he said.
Matheson said NRECA and its member co-ops will introduce themselves to new urban lawmakers as well as those from rural areas. Urban members of Congress have provided valuable support for co-ops in the past, he said.
“While there is a broader rural-urban divide, we have been able to develop support for our policy priorities from urban Democrats by describing ourselves as consumer-owned, and so we are supporting consumer-focused policy,” Matheson said. “If you sit down and talk to people, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.”
Erin Kelly is a staff writer at NRECA.