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Illinois Country Living

Citizen Lobbyists Play a Key Role in Policymaking

By Scott Gates

Obama and Youth Tour students

Democracy is dependent on informed and involved citizens – citizen lobbyists. Each year electric co-ops send young co-op members to Washington, D.C. to visit with their electric leaders and to learn how democratically controlled co-ops work. In 2005, this group of young leaders from Illinois visited with then Senator and now President Barack Obama.

On a humid summer day in Washington, D.C., a group of up-and-coming Illinois high school seniors attending the annual Rural Electric Youth Tour negotiate Capitol Hill, moments away from meeting with their U.S. Senator and Representative. At a crosswalk, a dark-suited passerby stops, recognizes the co-op T-shirts, and introduces himself with a smile: Chuck Penry, lobbyist and Associate Director of Government Relations with Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

This is Penry in his element, pounding the pavement on Capitol Hill, meeting with policymakers on their turf to explain the consumer side of energy issues.

“Government doesn’t quite work the way history books tell us,” explains Dena Stoner, NRECA Vice President of Government Relations. “An array of lobbyists and special interest groups are constantly vying for policymakers’ attention, all pushing their way as the right way.

Efforts by electric co-op leaders like Stoner and Penry keep national energy policy debates focused on consumer concerns. These efforts work with support from the tens of thousands of grassroots voices being heard on Capitol Hill as personal letters and e-mails sent by consumers reach lawmakers. Since electric co-ops operate in a heavily regulated industry where public policy carries far-reaching impacts, consumer involvement is particularly important.

“There’s no question that the plans currently being made by policymakers could double and triple electricity rates and energy costs, easily, over the next decade or so,” stresses Stoner. “Consumers are speaking up before that happens, supporting our own efforts as lobbyists. The role of these concerned consumers – these ‘citizen lobbyists’– is key in shaping policy in the electric industry, where the role of government is very, very high.”

The term “lobby” dates back to at least the 1600s as a place in the British House of Commons where citizens could meet with their representatives. Recognizing its importance, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrined lobbying, along with freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to protest, as a basic American right.

NRECA was formed to provide electric cooperatives with legislative representation on a national level. Most local electric co-ops also belong to a statewide association that handles lobbying functions at the state level.

“When consumers wake up in the morning, they’re not thinking about whether Congress could be marking up an important measure that could impact their electric bills,” says Stoner. “That’s what lobbyists are for. However, our efforts are greatly supported by consumers, who can explain to elected officials what their core issues are. That’s the essence of grassroots: It’s a powerful, persuasive force that most special interest groups just don’t have.”

Electric co-op lobbying efforts have recently been reinforced by “Our Energy, Our Future”™, an organized grassroots awareness campaign that puts co-op consumers directly in touch with U.S. senators and representatives. Over the past year, more than 1.5 million messages stressing the impact of energy policy on affordable electricity have been sent to members of Congress through letters, e-mail and hand-delivered notes.

Penry credits engaged consumers for really getting through to the policy makers he meets with on Capitol Hill. State-level lobbyists – another important component of the grassroots process – also pave the way for Penry’s efforts. “Without local statewide support, we wouldn’t be seeing the positive response from Congress we currently have,” he says.

“States drive our lobbying,” Penry says. “State-level lobbyists, co-op employees, and board members convey policy details to elected officials, and consumers really drive home why that policy matters. They make issues more local, and that’s really what elected officials care about – their constituency.”

The glue that holds it all together are the very real, personal messages from co-op consumers being sent to Capitol Hill through the “Our Energy, Our Future” initiative-dialogue that raises the co-op voice above the drumbeat of other special interest groups.

© 2016 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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