Rep. Jo Ann Emerson easily won a ninth term as a GOP member of the House last month, receiving 72 percent of the vote in her southeast Missouri district. And she’s the chairwoman of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, a seat she could expect to retain in the 113th Congress.
But when the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association called this fall, Emerson says, she had to listen. In February, she will take over as the trade group’s president, moving from Capitol Hill to the association’s headquarters on a prominent corner in the Ballston area of Arlington County, Va.
Emerson will head an organization with 800 employees split between offices in Virginia and Lincoln, Neb. The trade group has a lobbying team on which it spent just more than $2 million during the first nine months of this year, according to federal lobbying reports. Federal Election Commission records show that, since 2011, the group’s political action committee has distributed more than $1 million to affiliated political committees and contributed $2 million to Democratic and Republican congressional candidates.
In short, the 905 rural and suburban electric cooperatives served by the group have formed a small powerhouse.
Emerson says she has been impressed by the members of the nine electric co-ops in her 28-county district, which not only provide power to homes and businesses but also lead drives in times of natural disasters and community need.
“They are the first people on the scene, the first people setting up the shelters. They are the first group of people doing warm meals for people,” Emerson said last week. “I love the values that they represent, and I always have.”
The organization’s nonprofit electric co-ops trace their roots to a push by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to bring electricity to rural areas. Their service areas range from hamlets populated by a handful of people to farmland-turned-suburbia populated by tens of thousands, in areas that ring Atlanta and Dallas.
By law, co-op customers are also owner-members. Net earnings are shared among the members in the form of capital credits or deductions usually applied to their power bills. Co-ops also can elect to convert the credits to cash and send it to members.
Sixty-five co-ops generate and transmit their own electricity, while the others buy power from federal power producers or on the open market. Overall, the co-ops serve 42 million people in 47 states.
Emerson, a former trade association executive, became a House member after winning a special election in 1996 to finish the term of her late husband, Bill Emerson, who died of cancer.
She calls herself a problem-solver looking for resolutions and likes the fact that the co-ops set and meet goals, something that’s difficult to do in a politically divided Congress.
“For me, the first several years I was in Congress, I thought we got a lot of things done. In recent years, it’s been very frustrating because I didn’t think we got very much done,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I am looking forward to going back to the private sector.”
Emerson plans to be on the road a lot next year, visiting the co-ops represented by the association; she has not yet had time to focus on other issues the group could work on in the 113th Congress.
The renewed interest in climate change in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Emerson said, may revive legislative and regulatory efforts to tax or limit emissions generated by for-profit, nonprofit and local-government-owned utilities. Utilities fought hard against cap-and-trade proposals in the 111th Congress. For power-generating co-ops, the issue was especially crucial because they use coal, a major source of carbon emissions, to produce most of their electricity.
Current association CEO Glenn English also predicted that environmental issues would continue to confront not only the co-ops but also other parts of the energy industry.
“What we’re hopeful of is that we could adopt some kind of a policy that gives us certainty as to what is expected of the electric utility industry and of us in moving forward,” he says. “We’re having our energy policy set on the regulations side that comes more from the courts and from regulators trying to respond to the court or their interpretation of the law.”
English, an Oklahoma Democrat, served in the House until 1994, when he left to join the association as vice president and general manager.
The association has broad and varied interests, according to lobbying reports. This year, the organization followed the Commodity Futures Trade Commission efforts to write exemptions under a 2010 financial law (PL 111-203) for businesses that use derivative financial contracts to hedge business risks. The organization followed legislation to pre-empt the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gases, a contributor to climate change. The association’s portfolio also includes the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), cybersecurity, railroad retirement funds, telecommunications, renewable energy and appropriations for the Agriculture Department’s low-interest loan program for rural utilities.
As disparate as the issues may seem, English says, they reflect the association’s role as an employer of several hundred people, operator of a mutual fund and advocate for the core businesses of its member co-ops. The association also does contract work with the United States Agency for International Development and the World Bank to help rural communities in developing nations bring electricity to their homes.
English says the association’s focus has changed over the years as the needs of its members have changed.
“We used to be largely centered in the Agriculture committees. Now the issues affecting the industry means we’re virtually in every committee in Congress,” he says. “It’s a much broader range of issues that affect us and the industry.”
The one constant, English says, is the association’s bottom line for determining whether policy is good or bad for co-op members.
“How will it affect their electric bills? How will it affect their quality of life? Is this something that is going to help them or something that is going to work to their detriment?” he asks.