White House Extends Hoecker's Term

With little fanfare from the lame-duck Clinton administration, FERC Chairman James J. Hoecker received a recess appointment last Monday from the White House that effectively would extend his term on the Commission until the Senate adjourns next year. It also re-designated him as chairman.

Hoecker's future as chairman and as a commissioner still is the subject of much speculation. The traditional formula calls for President-elect George W. Bush to name a Republican as chairman when he takes office in January. That scenario would likely give the chairmanship to Commissioner Curt Hebert. An alternative would be for Hoecker to continue as chairman while another Bush appointee makes it through the selection and confirmation process, which could take three to four months. Given the turmoil in the California power market and potential shortages now forecast for the natural gas market toward the end of this winter, that scenario might make sense, some industry-watchers suggest.

Hoecker, who has developed consensus-building skills during his three and a half years as chairman, is seen as a stabilizing force who has so far resisted heavy pressures for short-term fixes from West Coast Democrats and the energy secretary, that would undermine the competitive market the FERC has labored so long to build. While the Commission has taken its lumps for refusing to impose hard price caps, the backlash is nothing compared to what it likely would be under a newly-installed and untried Republican leader. In fact, given the current environment, any appointment to FERC is liable to stir a firestorm in Senate confirmation hearings. Further, the outcry against decisions under a new Republican chairman would directly tar the fledgling Bush administration, making it more difficult to move its energy initiatives in the Congress and the Interior Dept.

Hebert, who appears to have taken his position as the lone Republican on the Commission very seriously, missing no opportunity to criticize decisions or statements by his fellow commissioners, has been lobbying hard for the chairmanship. The Bush team also is said to be considering Pat Wood III, chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission, as a candidate for the top spot.

In a press statement last week, Hoecker thanked President Clinton for giving him "this additional opportunity to help shape the energy future of the nation," and said he "look[ed] forward to continuing in public service." He also said he was "grateful" for the "tremendous contributions" of his Commission colleagues and staff members, "without which any chairman would be cut adrift." Hoecker's re-appointment was made after the Senate adjourned for the year on Dec. 15. The White House can only make interim recess appointments --- which don't require Senate confirmations --- when the Senate is not in session.

President Clinton nominated Hoecker to his second five-year term at FERC in November 1999, but the Senate was reluctant to act on his nomination. His current term expired last June, but he has been serving under a grace period that ended when the 106th Congress adjourned in mid-December. Hoecker has been FERC chairman since June 1997.

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