Tackling Climate Change
by Scott Gates
On a humid summer day in Washington, D.C., a group of up-and-coming high school seniors attending the annual Rural Electric Youth Tour negotiate Capitol Hill, moments away from meeting with their U.S. senators. At a crosswalk, a dark-suited passerby recognizes the co-op group and introduces himself with a smile: Chuck Penry, lobbyist and associate director of government relations with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).
This is Penry in his element, pounding the pavement on Capitol Hill, meeting with policymakers on their turf to explain the consumer side of energy issues.
“Government doesn’t quite work the way history books tell us,” explains Dena Stoner, NRECA vice president of government relations. “An array of lobbyists and special interest groups are constantly vying for policymakers’ attention, all pushing their way as the right way. Many times, politics involves dealing with many points of view. It can be very brutal.”
Efforts by electric co-op leaders such as Stoner and Penry keep national energy policy debates focused on consumer concerns. These efforts work with support from the tens of thousands of grassroots voices being heard on Capitol Hill as personal letters and e-mails sent by consumers reach lawmakers. Since electric co-ops operate in a heavily regulated industry where public policy carries far-reaching impacts, consumer involvement is particularly important.
“There’s no question that the plans currently being made by policymakers could easily double and triple electricity rates and energy costs, easily, over the next decade or so,” stresses Stoner. “Consumers are speaking up before that happens, supporting our own efforts as lobbyists. The role of these citizen lobbyists is key in shaping policy in the electric industry, where the role of government is very high.”
The existence of electric cooperatives serves as a prime example. Rural electrification was launched in 1935 with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Within four years, REA helped establish 417 electric cooperatives that were serving 288,000 households. Today, 42 million Americans receive electricity from more than 900 consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric co-ops.
Uncle Sam also played a direct role in getting power to rural residents through federal hydropower development projects, most of which were constructed between the 1930s and early 1960s.
“Co-ops operate in an environment where a host of laws passed by Congress and state legislatures, and regulations imposed by federal and state agencies, profoundly affect consumers,” Stoner comments. “Addressing these concerns takes on great importance.”
Enter the lobbyist. The term “lobby” dates back to at least the 1600s as a place in the British House of Commons where citizens could meet with their representatives.
ecognizing its importance, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrined lobbying, along with freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to protest, as a basic American right.
NRECA was formed to provide electric cooperatives with legislative representation on a national level. In Missouri, local electric co-ops also belong to the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, which handles lobbying functions at the state level.
“When consumers wake up in the morning, they’re not thinking about whether Congress could be marking up an important measure that could impact their electric bills. People generally don’t track things like that,” Stoner indicates. “That’s what lobbyists are for.
However, our efforts are greatly supported by consumers, who can explain to elected officials what their core issues are. That’s the essence of grassroots. It’s a powerful, persuasive force that most special interest groups just don’t have.”
Electric co-op lobbying efforts have recently been reinforced by “Our Energy, Our Future,” a grassroots awareness campaign that puts co-op consumers directly in touch with U.S. senators and representatives.
Over the past year, more than 1.5 million messages stressing the impact of energy policy on affordable electricity have been sent to members of Congress through letters, e-mail and hand-delivered notes. Missouri leads the nation in this effort.
During one round of personally walking letters into congressional offices, Amanda Wolfe, a senior grassroots adviser with NRECA, introduced herself to a Wisconsin representative’s receptionist. “After I handed her a stack of 735 letters, she looked at the pile, looked back at me, and with renewed interest asked, ‘now who are you with again?’”
Penry credits engaged consumers for really getting through to the policymakers he meets with on Capitol Hill. State-level lobbyists — another important component of the grassroots process — also pave the way for Penry’s efforts. “Without statewide support, we wouldn’t be seeing the positive response from Congress we currently have,” he says.
Barry Hart, CEO of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, splits his time between Jefferson City and Washington, D.C. Four or five times each year he travels east to discuss co-op issues with the Missouri congressional delegation, and relies on Penry to drive his points home.
“We let them know what people back home really care about, and then Chuck walks in the door, talks to a legislative aide, and it all comes together,” Hart observes. “We help him by getting our senators focused, and he helps us by relaying what they’re thinking about doing.”
The relationship works both ways, with each level of the lobbying effort strengthening the other.
“States drive our lobbying,” Penry says. “State-level lobbyists, co-op employees and board members convey policy details to elected officials, and consumers really drive home why that policy matters. They make issues more local, and that’s really what elected officials care about — their constituency.”
For its part, Missouri’s congressional delegation has been very supportive of the electric cooperative point of view, recognizing that those speaking for electric cooperatives get their message from the grassroots.
The glue that holds it all together are the real, personal messages from co-op consumers being sent to Capitol Hill through the “Our Energy, Our Future” initiative at www.ourenergy.coop — dialogue that raises the co-op voice above the drumbeat of other special interest groups. That effort will continue as debate on energy heats up in Washington, D.C.
“Consumers give us credibility when we step into a congressional office,” Stoner says. “The Our Energy, Our Future campaign really puts authenticity into what we’re talking about.”
Gates writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
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