Knoxville News Sentinel - Richard Powelson
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has been in office less than three months and already has accepted four leadership positions. Now the Tennessee Republican's challenge is setting priorities for each of his roles to allow him to have significant impact in at least one major area.
The latest leadership cap he donned was chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority Caucus, an informal committee of House and Senate members from the power producer's service area of most of Tennessee and portions of six adjoining states. The group has not been very active in the last four years in monitoring TVA, but Alexander said he wants the group to be active now to make sure the agency is heading in the best direction.
For example, TVA's board is considering whether to raise wholesale rates for residential and commercial customers by 8.1 percent, while cutting industrial rates by 2 percent. The extra revenues are needed to pay for more air pollution controls at coal-fired plants, officials said. Alexander and the caucus could explore the proposal in more detail to see if that much of a rate increase is justified.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat and member of the caucus, has urged caucus hearings on the rate proposal, but it is up to Alexander as chairman or a majority of the caucus members on whether there will be a hearing. TVA's board has the authority to raise rates at will without review by any regulatory body but is sensitive to input from its supporters in Congress.
Alexander said he will work with members from both major parties toward a goal of TVA maintaining reliable power output, bringing more business and jobs to the Tennessee Valley, keeping power rates as low as possible and working for cleaner air. TVA's coal-fired plants have been blamed for part of the pollution problem often found in southeast Tennessee, including in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
While new to the Senate, Alexander had a long career in public service earlier that often focused on education reform. That was his objective as governor, while University of Tennessee president and as U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. A member of the committee overseeing education policy, Alexander already has filed a bill to make sure that American history is a key part of children's education.
In another leadership role, he is chairman of the subcommittee on children and families under the committee handling health and education programs. So his education initiatives for children will fit well into that post.
He also can have an impact on energy programs, which would include power produced by TVA, as chairman of the energy subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He can hold hearings on alternative energy sources that would allow America to be less dependent on oil imported from the Middle East.
Alexander also is chairman of the African affairs subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee. If he follows Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist's work as former chairman of that panel, he could explore ways to reduce the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa.
One of the benefits for the Tennessee senator in accepting the three subcommittee chairmanships is getting extra federal funds to hire staff to help him research the status, plans and shortcomings of various federal programs falling under the panels' legislative oversight. The same staff will help him plan hearings to study the programs.
The Senate Republicans have a narrow majority — 51 of 100 members - and need 60 votes to stop delaying tactics. To pass major reforms, Alexander will have to find mainstream ideas that will appeal to a bipartisan majority.