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FERC Chairman Caught in Political Vortex

FERC Chairman Caught in Political Vortex

With the U.S. Senate in a holding pattern until after the election, a rumored recess appointment by the White House to extend Chairman James J. Hoecker's tour-of-duty at FERC by another year also has been drawn into the no-fly zone, awaiting Tuesday's election results.

Regardless of the election outcome, however, industry observers were suggesting the best kind of politics would be to keep Hoecker on as chairman at least long enough to deal with the major California power market restructuring due for a FERC vote in December, and until an orderly transition to a full operating Commission can be made. Mid-winter is not a good time to initiate a new FERC chairman in the natural gas and power business.

Nevertheless, in the current uncertain situation the political jockeying at the Commission has stepped up a notch or two as Commissioners Curt Hebert, a Republican, and Democrats Linda Breathitt and William Massey are each said to be lobbying to become the next chairman of FERC, when Hoecker's current grace period expires as scheduled with the final adjournment of the current Congress.

"If anyone that is sitting there [at FERC] tells you they're not interested in the job, they're lying to you," said an informed source. "Linda's working hard for it. Bill's working hard for it," and so too is Hebert. "Obviously, everyone would love to lead the agency."

All bets are off regarding previous reports that President Clinton would unilaterally extend Hoecker's term as a commissioner for a year, enabling him to continue to lead the agency until a new president made his own choice for chairman. That scenario had been predicated on Congress adjourning and the appointment being made before the election (see NGI, Oct. 16).

It now appears the lame-duck Congress will continue sessions later in November, which would delay a unilateral interim or recess appointment (one made when Congress is not in session, and therefore not subject to Senate confirmation).

After the election and adjournment, Clinton could still make the interim appointment for up to a year, but it is questionable whether Hoecker would stay on for long if Texas Gov. George Bush is elected president and appoints a Republican chairman, either through a new appointment to the Commission or by selecting Hebert, currently the only Republican.

Without Hoecker there will be only three commissioners, leaving two vacancies to be filled by the next president. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) who was largely instrumental in getting Hebert appointed to the Commission in late 1997, is expected to support his fellow Mississippian for the chairmanship.

If Vice President Al Gore is elected president, Hoecker's continuation as chairman is more likely, through an interim one-year appointment by Clinton, and later possibly an appointment by Gore to a new full term.

Hoecker has been a commissioner since May 1993, and was appointed chairman by Clinton in June 1997.

Susan Parker, Ellen Beswick

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