Before it adjourned on December 24, 2009, the U.S. Senate confirmed John Norris to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Norris, a former chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board, has recently been serving as chief of staff to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack. Norris fills the seat vacated by former FERC Chairman Joseph Kelliher.
The commission comprises five members who serve staggered, five-year terms. No more than three commissioners may be of the same political party. With Norris’ confirmation, FERC now has four commissioners: Phil Moeller, a Republican, has been on the commission since 2006, and his term expires this year (June 30, 2010); Marc Spitzer, also a Republican, joined the commission shortly after Phil Moeller, and his term expires next year (June 30, 2011); John Norris, a Democrat who was recently confirmed, will serve a term ending June 30, 2012; and Jon Wellinghoff, also a Democrat, serves as chairman of the commission, and his term will end June 30, 2013. There is an open seat with a term expiring June 30, 2014. This seat was recently vacated by Suedeen Kelly, who had been on the commission since 2003 but declined President Obama’s invitation to serve for another five years.
Serving as a FERC commissioner is a demanding job – the workload is heavy, the policy calls are significant and the demands on one’s time from interested parties wanting to hear and express views are never ending. There should be five commissioners to spread the work around. While the commission can function with four and even three commissioners, the decision-making process is improved when different perspectives and opinions are brought to bear on the myriad policy calls that arise on a daily basis. Having only four commissioners means that every decision must command a three-fourths majority, and although the issues with which FERC deals do not usually break along partisan lines, having two Republican commissioners and two Democratic commissioners only invites partisan considerations.
I look forward to John Norris’ term on the commission and wish him the best. I hope that President Obama soon nominates someone of high quality to fill the open seat and that the Senate confirms him or her shortly thereafter. To be truly effective the Commission should have a full complement of five commissioners.