President Donald Trump’s comments defending his administration’s response to the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico last year may have stymied chances for a bipartisan bill to reduce politicization and patronage at the territory’s publicly-owned electric utility, which some see as a key impediment slowing modernization of the island’s grid.
House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah and ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona both say that action is needed to create safeguards to protect the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority from political influence.
Grijalva said in an interview there have been conversations between his and Bishop’s office on legislation related to creating “firewalls” to curb political meddling at the utility.
However, on Thursday, Trump in a tweet rejected an independent estimate that nearly 3,000 people died on the island as a result of Hurricane Maria. Trump also accused Democrats without evidence of inflating the death toll.
Watch: Pelosi on Trump’s Puerto Rico Comments: ‘Think About That, Pray Over That’
These comments, and statements by the president calling the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria an “unsung success,” have caused suspicions about people’s “motives” to “crop up again, when we thought we had tapped those down,” Grijalva said.
“It derails some of those discussions because then we’re back to a place we were four months ago, with not only comments from the administration, but just attitude by the administration,” he said. “It makes people that want to work on compromise become really suspicious of what the real intent is.”
He added that “I don’t think it derails it but it does have the potential to delay” the legislation.
The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, has made clear to the committee his suspicions of Congress’ intentions in modifying how the utility operates. Rosselló did not attend the hearing in July, writing to the committee in advance that any “new federal intervention” at PREPA could “jeopardize or impair” efforts to modernize the electric system on the island.
Rosselló is a member of both the New Progressive Party and the Democratic Party.
“I do not plan to attend the hearing because my attendance would legitimize a political exercise that was organized for the sole purpose of promoting flawed legislation that would severely hamper our reconstruction,” Rosselló said.
The utility cannot be fixed without depoliticizing the management, says Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a research group that conducts analysis of financial and economic issues on a range of energy and environment subjects. Kunkel frequently writes about the future of PREPA.
“What you get are energy positions, energy plans, that change with every new political administration, which is not a recipe for a well-planned transition of the electrical system,” she said. “It’s basically a recipe for a deal for whatever is a priority for the governor.”
Rep. Bishop disagreed that the president’s comments have had an impact but declined to give any updates to the state of negotiations. Asked if he could give any details about what a legislative proposal might look like, he said, “I’d have to kill you afterwards if I [told you].”
However, development of a proposal to address PREPA’s politics can’t afford any delays, including cuts to how many days Congress is in session, Bishop says. Whether or not a proposal comes out of his office will depend on how many legislative days the House has in October, he said.
“If we have two weeks in October, then there’s a good opportunity of doing that. If we don’t have two weeks in October, there is less opportunity for doing that. Simply because we’re going to run out of time,” Bishop said.
Leadership has been mum on details regarding whether the October schedule may change. Asked during House colloquy last week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “I’m always encouraged if we get our work done there won’t be a point to be here. As of now we don’t have our work done so we’ll need to finish the job.”
Regardless, it now seems Democrats on the committee will offer their own framework for what PREPA-related legislation should look like in the event bipartisan work cannot be completed by the midterm elections.
Grijalva said he will be meeting next week with ranking members of two committees — Small Business’ Nydia M. Velázquez and Homeland Security’s Bennie Thompson — to discuss what they can present. He said while the president’s comments delay bipartisan negotiations on the committee, they add “urgency” to the issue.
“It’s getting to the point that we have to put a template out there, and if nothing happens this time around [in Congress], at least if there’s a flip in Congress to have that ready in January,” he said.