As the 2024 election year begins, an already divided Congress may well be struggling to reach consensus on crucial legislation while the Biden administration rushes to issue new federal regulations.
That’s the climate that NRECA’s Government Relations team likely faces as it advocates on behalf of electric cooperatives on Capitol Hill, at the White House and with federal agencies.
In a recent Q&A session, Louis Finkel, NRECA’s senior vice president of Government Relations, talked about how the association will work aggressively to ensure that new bills and regulations help not-for-profit co-ops continue to provide reliable, affordable electricity to their consumer-members.
Electric co-ops have begun winning awards for millions of dollars from the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, thanks to provisions that NRECA helped secure in those bills. Do you expect the flow of funding to co-ops to continue in a big way this year?
Finkel: First, the biggest issue before Congress this year is going to be funding the government, as it was last year. There is an ongoing tension between the Biden administration, Senate Democrats and House Republicans, with House Republicans wanting to cut funding in the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
As we sit here in January, Congress is still working on funding the government for the current fiscal year and then will have to quickly turn to funding for the next fiscal year.
In that context, we continue to educate members of Congress about the value of new incentive programs designed to harden the grid and create greater resiliency in the face of a changing energy environment while looking for opportunities to solidify the reliable, affordable power that electric co-ops offer.
Getting provisions that benefit co-ops into law was really important, but shaping the programs and the guidance that comes out of the federal agencies that implement them has been just as important.
We have been engaged with the agencies to make sure that misguided agency interpretation does not undermine these programs and that they are implemented in the way that Congress intended them to be.
Congress is continuing to try to craft a new five-year Farm Bill that could include crucial funding for co-op infrastructure projects, rural economic development and broadband. What are the prospects for its passage this year? And what is NRECA doing to help shape Farm Bill programs that benefit co-ops and their members?
Finkel: Congress extended the current Farm Bill through the end of the year, which bought them some breathing room. There are some broad differences of opinion between the two parties on a range of programs—most of which don’t directly impact our co-ops.
Our intent is to work with members on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers to reinforce the important role that the Rural Utilities Service programs play as a crucial resource for infrastructure and system improvements and routine maintenance—all with a focus of keeping the lights on. Healthy, strong RUS programs are an important resource for co-op communities throughout the country.
What are some of NRECA’s other legislative priorities for 2024?
Finkel: Though we always have policy matters that we raise, oftentimes our message is driven by the congressional agenda, which could be really narrow this year.
We will look for ways to continue to address supply chain difficulties to ensure co-ops can get transformers in a reasonable time frame, and we’ll push Congress to use some government resources to further alleviate supply chain woes.
Congress is set to reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act, and in light of the recent developments in the Pacific Northwest and the administration’s backroom deal to undermine dams on the lower Snake River, we’ll be aggressively engaged to make sure there are no provisions in the bill to breach those dams.
We’ll continue to push for legislation to expedite permitting and alleviate the endless litigation that stifles the construction of infrastructure as well as advocate for transmission policies that allocate costs to those that benefit the most.
And related to broadband, there continues to be noise about changing the nature of the pole attachment exemptions for electric cooperatives, mostly by other participants in the broadband industry. We continue to educate members of Congress about the importance of the Federal Communications Commission exemptions for our members and how our members and our service territories are different.
With the recently installed Democratic majority at the FCC, we’ve seen a lot of proposals come forward, most notably one on net neutrality. NRECA is asking the FCC for targeted compliance exemptions for electric co-ops in any new net neutrality rules. Co-ops support net neutrality and treat all their broadband consumers equally, but excessive, onerous regulation could divert crucial investment away from the communities they serve.
NRECA has strongly opposed the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed power plant rule as a threat to co-ops’ ability to provide reliable, affordable power. What can we expect to see on this front in 2024?
Finkel: We expect to see a final rule in the spring, and we’ll continue to oppose the rule, which may very well result in litigation. We’ll continue to push back on the EPA’s overreach, which oversteps its statutory authority and hampers co-ops’ ability to provide reliable, affordable power.
We’ll oppose this kind of overreach by any federal agency, whether it’s the EPA or any other agency. We’ll continue to aggressively raise concerns where necessary and embrace proposals where they make sense.
This is obviously a huge election year with both the presidential and congressional elections. Do the elections complicate NRECA’s efforts to achieve its legislative and regulatory priorities?
Finkel: I don’t think it complicates our ability to achieve anything, but it complicates our ability to advance an agenda. With a divided Congress, it is already really hard to legislate, and even more so in an election year.
On the regulatory side, new proposals are unlikely to get finalized within a year. So, most new regulations that get put forward now are just markers for the president to tell voters what is important to his administration.
In that context, we will continue to oppose shortsighted policies and continue to support policies, both in Congress and in regulatory proposals, that serve the interests of our members and their consumer-members.
Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.