By Spencer S. Hsu
For the army of consumer and business lobbyists stalking Congress as it struggles to overhaul the nation's $200 billion electric industry, the message this fall is clear: Don't hold your breath.
After years of debate, legislation remains bogged down in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, hobbled by a lack of consensus over the crucial question of how much power to give federal authorities over the emerging utility market and by feuding among key lawmakers.
With the Senate awaiting House action, House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) last week all but pulled the plug on prospects for a bill this year, telling the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "I want to get it right, so it will take a little time."
"There are no prospects for this year. The question is whether there might be prospects for next year before this Congress ends," said Linda G. Stuntz, partner in a D.C. lobbying firm representing investor-owned public utilities.
As with any major deregulatory effort, the sheer size and complexity of the electricity overhaul defies quick agreement in Congress. But the restructuring push is also running afoul of partisan politics, intraparty committee jockeying, and tension between Bliley and some of the industry's biggest stakeholders.
Against that backdrop, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the energy and power subcommittee, said Friday he will unveil legislation next week and plans to hammer out Congress's first formal attempt on the subject at a hearing Oct. 27.
A key sticking point is Barton's resistance to giving the federal Energy Regulatory Commission jurisdiction over states to cut off holdings of utility companies that threaten to monopolize deregulated markets. The White House, among others, wants this federal authority, while Barton holds that states can police the industry themselves.
But Barton said he will meet one-on-one with members to broker a subcommittee deal. "I would come close to guaranteeing it," Barton said. "I'm very confident that it will be a strong bipartisan vote when it comes to a vote."
Democrats are skeptical. Reluctant to give Republicans a legislative victory on the scale of utility deregulation before the 2000 election after which they hope to return to power Democrats cite concerns over the bill's impact on everything from the Tennessee Valley Authority to salmon ladders at hydroelectric dams in the Northwest.
"There's basically no consensus on any of these things it's like peas on a knife," said a spokesman to senior committee Democrat John D. Dingell (Mich.). "The minority is not convinced of the need for federal legislation at this point. [And] next year it's going to be difficult to do anything."
Another complication has been a public struggle between Barton and Bliley. The Virginia chairman supports a more muscular national role and has not ruled out rewriting his subcommittee head's work, even while pressing him to move faster.
The prodding prompted Barton to fire back in writing last month: "Does the esteemed committee chairman expect me to deliver a corpse? We want to deliver a healthy baby to the full Committee, not a barely-breathing, desiccated husk of a bill."
While Barton said the exchange was "more rhetorically inflamed than it needed to be" and denied "any personal animosity," Bliley's spokesman reiterated that he had been "exasperated" by delays and comments made by Barton this summer.
"If there was a method to the madness, it wasn't evident to many people," the committee spokesman said.
Several lobbyists said some publicly owned utilities who favor a go-slow approach to deregulation also disagree with Bliley's pro-competitive stance. Because internal House Republican term limits on chairmen will likely push Bliley out after 2000, those companies are content to run out the clock until a new Congress forms, they said.
Bliley, who since 1994 has presided as chairman over deregulation of the telecommunications, cable television and wholesale power industries, said critics would be disappointed if they think the measure is dead, however.
"Chairman Bliley is not about protecting the selfish interests of monopolies," his spokesman said. "He's interested in helping American families pay less money for their electric bills every month."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company