Is John Norris leaving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission?

Washington, D.C. – Rumors are surfacing in Washington that John Norris, a Democratic member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and FERC’s most liberal commissioner, is poised to resign, some three years before his term expires in June 2017. Norris has already said he won’t seek reappointment, and complained about the tawdry circumstances that have surrounded the appointment of Norman Bay to a FERC seat, with a promise of becoming chairman in April, coupled with the reappointment of Cheryl LaFleur to the commission and a temporary appointment as chair.

FERC's John Norris
FERC’s John Norris

The latest rumors are that Norris will announce this week or next that he is stepping down at FERC, reported by both Politico and SNL Financial. I had two independent sources who follow energy developments closely – one a Democrat and the other a Republican – confirm the Norris rumor early this week. But my call to his office and an email inquiry went unanswered.

Norris, a liberal Democrat who was an Iowa utility commissioner with ties to the Obama administration (his wife Jackie was Michelle Obama’s chief of staff), was said to be a candidate to succeed Jon Wellinghoff as FERC chairman. But he drew opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada (and presumably Wellinghoff, who is very close to Reid), who somehow viewed him as “pro-coal.”

That characterization is ludicrous given Norris’s record as a regulator at the state and federal level. Nonetheless, his candidacy to head FERC when Wellinghoff left office did not move forward. Reid also reportedly didn’t favor LaFleur as a FERC chairman, again perhaps influenced by Wellinghoff, who had clashed with LaFleur and was behind the failed nomination of Ron Binz of Colorado to succeed him at FERC chairman.

My Republican source who follows FERC closely told me that it is “no secret that Norris has been looking to leave.” Politico Pro reported, “Norris, who had hopes of being FERC chairman, would be leaving his post nearly three years before his term is set to expire. He has been the subject of resignation rumors for several months.”

My well-connected Democratic source said that a deal could be in the works to replace Norris at FERC with Colette Honorable, chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission and currently president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Her appointment, according to my source, would be a gift from Reid to Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas who is in a tough re-election campaign. Politico reported that Honorable “was chief of staff to now-Gov. Mike Beebe” and a former aide to Pryor. An African-American, her nomination could help solidify the black vote for Pryor.

Timing could be important for a replacement for Norris. If the Republicans take control of the Senate in November, they will be in a strong position to block administration appointments. Given the timing of the political clock, Norris would have to resign soon and the White House name a replacement quickly to have much chance of pulling off a confirmation.

Congress is out of town until after Labor Day, making it difficult to get a nominee through the vetting and confirmation process before the November election.