We recently talked about the obstructionist “long game” that Chuck Schumer has been running on all of President Trump’s nominees, insisting on filing cloture motions on each one and employing other tactics to delay the process. These attempted appointments mostly attract media attention when it’s for the top level positions, but some of the underlying ones are also critical for normal infrastructure operations. For a prime example, there is currently only one member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which is supposed to have five people onboard. As the Houston Chronicle reported last week, this means that no new pipeline projects can receive final approval at this time and there are a lot of them, er… in the pipeline, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Billions of dollars in gas pipeline projects face the prospect of substantial delays, as attempts to fill critical positions on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission fall prey to a political inertia that has overtaken Washington in recent months.
With health care and the investigation into the Trump campaign’s contact with Russia sucking up the capital’s oxygen – and Republicans and Democrats increasingly at odds – nominations to federal posts have slowed to a virtual crawl.
The situation is particularly dire at FERC, which must give approval before construction can begin on any natural gas pipeline that crosses state lines. For the past five months, the five-member commission has not had the minimum three commissioners required for a vote – a first in its more than 40-year history.
To be clear, Trump isn’t entirely blameless on this one and the Democrats have at least a fig leaf of an explanation for their actions. The former chair of the commission resigned in January leaving only a single member remaining and the President didn’t get around to looking at filling those positions all spring. When he finally did begin nominating people he put forward Robert Powelsonand Neil Chatterjee. However, the nonpartisan board is always supposed to have three members from one party and two from the other. Those candidates would fill two Republican slots, but Trump still needs another Democrat as well as a chairman to get the commission up to full staffing.
Now he’s suggested the names of Richard Glick for the Democratic slot and Virginia attorney Kevin J. McIntyre to be chairman. The problem is that the White House hasn’t submitted the finished paperwork to make those nominations official. The Democrats in the Senate are standing by a tradition where new appointments from both parties are both considered at once. (That’s the fig leaf I mentioned above.) If they agree to act on all four nominations at once we could be back in business and get the new pipelines approved rapidly. But will they? If Chuck Schumer sticks to his previous pattern and wants to gum up the works it could delay things for months.
And since we’re talking about pipelines (a favorite subject of the Democrats as I’m sure you know) it’s not difficult to imagine them dragging their feet on these nominations until winter and even fundraising off their ability to “block” new pipeline construction. We’ll be monitoring this situation closely as it progresses.