A decade after former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., led a reform of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s governing board, his successors from Tennessee in the Senate aren’t so sure the board appointment process is working out so well, at least under President Barack Obama.
Tennesssee’s senior senator, Lamar Alexander, is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that reviews TVA board nominees. But Alexander said he has not even been consulted by the Obama White House about appointments to Tennessee’s biggest and most influential federal agency.
“What I don’t like is that the Obama administration simply ignores Tennessee’s senators when it decides who ought to be on the Tennessee Valley Authority and I’m not going to let that continue if I have any way to stop it,” Alexander said during an editorial board meeting this week with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “I’m elected to have a say on behalf of Tennesseans on a number of things and one of those is TVA.”
A Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, which Alexander said he believes is likely in January following next month’s elections, may take a more skeptical view of TVA appointments made by Obama without the advice and consent of senators in the Tennessee Valley, most of whom are Republicans.
“If we have a majority in the Senate, I intend to go with Sen. (Bob) Corker to the White House and tell them, “Don’t send us any more TVA nominees without talking with us first.”
Last year, Corker criticized the board appointment process, which he said left the board with members with little other corporate board experience. Corker complained last year that while TVA is vital to Tennessee, the agency is not very important to the White House which appoints its directors.
For presidents of both political parties, he said, appointment of TVA directors is “a hassle and to some degree an annoyance” that at times seems to involve “just crossing “Ts” and dotting ‘Is’ for political considerations.”
“TVA is not that important overall to the federal government and certainly not to administrations of either ilk,” Corker said last year. “It is extremely important to Tennessee.”
But other politicians from outside the Tennessee Valley have weighed into the TVA appointment process in the past.
Under former President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., withhold votes on some of Bush’s appointment “unless they were Republicans that Sen. Reid picked,” Alexander said.
Bush nominated former Tennessee Republican Chairwoman Susan Richardson Williams to a second term on the TVA board in 2007 along with Democrat William Graves, the presiding bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Memphis. Graves was ultimately confirmed, but Williams was not. She is the only presidential nomination for the TVA board made under its current structure not to be confirmed by the Senate.
Changing of the guard
Through most of its 81-year history, TVA was governed by a 3-member, full-time board of presidentially appointed directors. Under the reforms pushed through by Frist in 2004, the TVA board was expanded to nine members who serve as part-time directors and hire a full-time CEO to run the federal utility.
In August, the White House nominated two more Democrats to the TVA board – Memphis television manager Ron Walter and Nashville consultant Virginia Lodge, a former commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Human Services under former Gov. Phil Bredesen, D-Tenn. Those appointments, if confirmed, would mean the entire TVA board is comprised of Democrats for the first time since the part-time board was created.
Alexander said he met briefly with the newest nominees “and I look forward to talking with them more about TVA policies.” But Alexander said he is unsure if the two new nominees – or another White House appointment that Obama could make to fill the final vacancy on the 9-member board – will be confirmed by the end of the year and before the next Congress is seated in January.
But Alexander said if Republicans win back majority control of the U.S. senate, “I’m sure there will be a reluctance to do much in the lame duck session.”
Democratic supporters of the pending TVA board nominees insist they are qualified and should be confirmed.
“Ron Walter is an outstanding nominee for the TVA board that Sen. Alexander, as governor, appointed to be the first African American on the Tennessee Historical Commission,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, who said he has talked with Alexander about the nomination. “Ron Walter has been an upstanding citizen always, he is the kind of person that Tennesseans can be proud to have in a position of trust, and I know he will do an outstanding job when confirmed.”
The only other Democrat in Tennessee’s congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, said he has not talked with the White House about its TVA appointees and as a House member has no role in the Senate’s advise and consent for such nominees. But Cooper, a former chairman of the TVA Congressional Caucus, praised the nomination of Lodge to the board.
“I’m well acquainted with Virginia Lodge, and she is a very capable person who would be a valuable asset to the TVA board,” Cooper said in an emailed statement.
Traditionally, such nominees meet individually with members of the Tennessee Valley delegation and then are reviewed at a hearing by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for a recommendation to the entire Senate. But the nominations could be simply brought up for a voice vote of approval by the U.S. senate, if the Democratic majority wants to push the nominations through the Senate.
Alexander said he personally likes both Walter and Lodge, who is said “are nice people.
“What I don’t like is the fact that I’m elected to be the United States senator from Tennessee and the White House acts like there is no Article I of the constitution,” he said. “Advise and consent is perhaps the most important part of a United States senator’s responsibility and I’ve got some views on nuclear power and wind power and I’d like to have those views at least understood by members of the board. I don’t want to run TVA – that’s not an appropriate role for the Senate – but energy policy is.”
• 9 part-time members set policy for TVA and hire full-time CEO
• Board members are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate
• Board members serve 5-year terms and are paid $48,900 as a director; $50,000 as committee chair and $54,500 as TVA chairman
Current board (with one vacancy)
• Joe Ritch, an Atlanta attorney, is chairman
• William Sansom, Knoxville businessman going off the board at the end of the year
• Barbara Haskew, a Chattanooga resident and retired MTSU business school dean going off the board at the end of the year
• Marilyn Brown, professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta
• V. Lynn Evans, Memphis accountant
• Richard Howorth, Oxford, Miss., businessman
• C. Peter Mahurin, former chairman of Hilliard Lyons Financial Services who lives in Kentucky
• Mike McWherter, Jackson, Tenn., attorney and businessman who ran for governor in 2010
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