Are lawmakers who are willing to work across party lines and build bipartisan consensus an endangered species?
Although Democrats won the House in the midterm elections, their thin majority and Republican control of the Senate make collaboration essential for the coming Congress.
Lawmakers should seize opportunities to work together and find common ground. As a former member of Congress, I know what is possible when you reach across the aisle to build consensus around ideas that are good for Democrats and Republicans alike. And as the head of a trade association advocating for electric cooperatives and their local communities, I have a unique perspective on the needs of rural America.
Rural America is counting on Congress to break free of partisanship and work together to address the needs of rural areas — needs that transcend politics and lend themselves to compromise and collaboration.
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Improving our nation’s aging infrastructure is a great place to start. Congress and the White House should explore an infrastructure package that benefits all Americans, especially those at risk of being left behind in rural America. Such investment must extend beyond roads and bridges. Congress should leverage an infrastructure package to help maintain, modernize and secure the electric grid and connect rural communities to the modern economy.
Access to reliable power is a foundational strength of the American economy and a common denominator for every home, business and school. Modernizing our grid is an investment that promotes resiliency and ensures that we can meet tomorrow’s energy needs.
The new Congress also presents an opportunity to expand access to high-speed internet service in rural communities that lack it. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 23 million rural Americans lack access to broadband — millions of them are members of an electric co-op. Roughly 100 electric cooperatives are working to close the digital divide by bringing broadband to their communities, and more are exploring the option.
Some important strides have been made in the past year to promote rural broadband deployment. Congress approved a $600 million United States Department of Agriculture rural broadband pilot program, and 35 electric co-ops will receive $225 million over 10 years as winners of an FCC broadband funding auction.
Despite that progress, an expanded combination of grants and loans is necessary to build on pilot programs and provide rural communities with the wherewithal for education, telemedicine and a 21st-century economy. Everyone — the Trump administration, Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress — agrees on the need to bolster rural broadband.
A third area of possible bipartisan agreement lies in the need to produce a new farm bill. The farm bill, which authorizes numerous rural economic development programs, traditionally has bipartisan support in Congress. Through the USDA’s rural economic development program and others, co-ops undertake a wide range of economic development activities — expanding business facilities, improving infrastructure, investing in energy efficiency and bolstering community resources like schools, libraries and community centers.
Although the House and Senate passed different versions of a farm bill this year, we’re hopeful that lawmakers can come to an agreement on a compromise bill that promotes rural economic development and protects Rural Utilities Service electric loan funding.
Electric cooperatives are engines of economic development in their communities — working arm and arm with their citizens. And we stand ready to work with every policymaker who shares our goal of a brighter and more prosperous rural America.
Jim Matheson is CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national service organization that represents the nation’s more than 900 not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives, and he previously served seven terms as a U.S. representative from Utah.
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