Norris Says ‘Arrivederci FERC’ and Heads to Rome

In a series of events that could have been choreographed by the Three Stooges, John Norris yesterday resigned his seat on the Federal Energy Commission. He will become the top official representing the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Italy, thanks to his old friend and former boss, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack.

The Norris resignation has been rumored for months. He was spurned as FERC chairman when Jon Wellinghoff left and Wellinghoff’s godfather, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, turned thumbs down on Norris as chairman. Reid apparently had issues with unspecified positions Norris took as head of the Iowa Utilities Board, where then-Gov. Vilsack appointed him. When Vilsack came to Washington to head USDA, he brought Norris with him as chief of staff. His wife, Jackie, was Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.

The White House named Norris to FERC in 2010 to fill a vacancy and reappointed him in 2012 for a full term ending in 2017.

Norris was reportedly appalled at how Reid, at the behest of Wellinghoff, attempted to maneuver former Colorado regulator Ron Binz into the FERC top job. When that nomination failed, Reid tried to orchestrate Norman Bay, another Wellinghoff favorite, into the slot over Cheryl LaFleur, who had been doing a fine job as the acting chair. That maneuver also failed, although a political deal was cut among Reid, the White House, and the Senate Energy Committee to get Bay onto the commission and LaFleur as formally the chairman until next April, when Bay presumably will take over.

Many regarded the whole show following Wellinghoff’s departure as tawdry, Norris apparently among them. One of my many irreverent sources now refers to FERC as the “Federal Enabling Reid Commission,” as the White House cares far more about keeping Reid happy than the functioning of an obscure but important federal regulatory agency.

The end game for the Norris resignation was farce. An announcement of his farewell appeared on FERC’s website early Thursday afternoon. Then it quickly vanished with no explanation. Nobody at the commission was available to explain the disappearing statement. Scuttlebutt has it that the White House was ticked off at the announcement because the administration wanted to pair the Norris resignation with a nomination of Arkansas utility regulator Colette Honorable as a replacement.

Honorable, currently president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, has close ties to Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who is in a tough reelection race that could decide which party controls the Senate next year. Control of the Senate is close to Reid’s partisan heart. As a black woman, Honorable has symbolic value for her party in a state where African-Americans are an important voting bloc.

At the end of the afternoon, the Norris statement reappeared on the FERC website. It read: “Earlier today, I submitted my letter of resignation from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to President Obama. It has been a great honor to serve with all the exceptional professionals and public servants who make up the FERC family and so many dedicated energy stakeholders in the public and private sectors. I want to say a special thank you to the incredible personal staff I have had throughout my tenure on the Commission. I have a tremendous opportunity to continue in public service as the Minister-Counselor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Rome, Italy. My resignation will take effect on Wednesday, August 20, 2014.”

By late Thursday afternoon, after Norris had confirmed that he was leaving FERC, no announcement of a replacement was forthcoming from the White House. Stay tuned.