By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Business in Washington D.C. can sometimes be a game of shadows, and this week’s confirmation of New Mexico’s Norman Bay to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has Capitol Hill buzzing about what went on behind the scenes.
“This is really unprecedented,” said William Yeatman, who follows energy issues closely as a specialist at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. “There’s normally not that much intrigue at FERC.”
On Tuesday, Bay was confirmed in a divisive 52-45 vote in the U.S. Senate to become one of five commissioners at FERC. What’s unusual is that Bay was confirmed with the understanding that he will become the FERC’s chairman — but not right away.
Instead, Bay will serve as commissioner and receive a sort of on-the-job-training for nine months to eventually assume the role of chairman. In the meantime, Cheryl LaFleur will remain as chairwoman until next spring. Then, President Obama is expected to name Bay to the top spot.
“He’s going to have training wheels, I guess,” Yeatman said. “This is not par for the course.”
While most Americans aren’t very familiar with FERC, it regulates the country’s electric grid and energy infrastructure, such as pipelines. The agency is going through what Yeatman calls “seismic shifts” as the Obama administration plans on expanding renewable energy sources and contracting the use coal as part of the country’s energy portfolio.
A former prosecutor and law professor in New Mexico, Bay has been the chief law enforcement officer at FERC since 2009, but he has no professional energy experience, which led some senators to oppose his confirmation.
But he was the choice of the Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to become the FERC chairman.
It’s unusual for a senator who is not a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to get involved in FERC confirmation hearings, but Reid was especially vocal in pushing for Bay. Reid had earlier blocked two other candidates for the job and was firmly opposed to retaining LaFleur as chairwoman.
Last month, when asked by the Wall Street Journal why he was so interested in an agency that often flies under the political radar, Reid turned sarcastic, saying, “Wow, that is amazing — that a majority leader who has a responsibility of selecting people would have some opinion as to who he suggests to the White House.”
New Mexico Watchdog left a voice mail message for Bay, but Mary O’Driscoll, director of media relations at FERC, called and said Bay “is not available for interviews.”
Tuesday’s vote for Bay was contentious, with all but two Democrats voting for Bay and nearly all Republicans voting against his nomination.
“You have to ask the question. ‘what are its terms?'” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said. “Will acting chair LaFleur have the opportunity to serve fully and completely as chair? Will it be clear that Mr. Bay is not a ‘shadow chairman’ or ‘chairman-in-waiting’ during this crucial period?”
The only Republican in the Senate who voted for Bay was Sen. Dean Heller, who, like Reid, is from Nevada.
“Clearly there are politics at play,” Yeatman said. “Why a Republican like Heller would buck his party and back Bay and why Harry Reid would go to all these lengths is a good question.”
In the run-up to the Bay confirmation vote, former longtime Senate Republican Pete Domenici of New Mexico endorsed Bay, telling a Senate committee, “I think this is a great appointment.”
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who worked with Bay as a prosecutor, endorsed his nomination to the commission in a letter and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced Bay at a Senate committee. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also supported Bay’s nomination.
While LaFleur is scheduled to resign as chairwoman next spring, she will stay at FERC as a commissioner. On the same day the full Senate voted for Bay by just a seven-vote margin, the Senate gave LaFleur a new five-year term as a commissioner, 90-7.
“Clearly, she was a less divisive figure,” Yeatman said. “She’ll be around for five more years and Bay will be around for five years. One wonders what kind of working environment they’ve engendered. You basically tell someone their chairmanship is over in nine months and the guy in the office next to you is going to take over.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski