The TVA: It Ain't What It Used to Be

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In recent years, as the energy crisis has developed, and bureaucracies in Washington have wrestled with little success to solve it, and Congress has moved slower than a West Virginia coal train even to agree on a battle strategy, some Americans have proposed that a public agency based in Knoxville, Tennessee, become the model for coping with the problem.

On first impression Knoxville seems an unlikely site for providing a solution to an internationally baffling crisis. For three decades the civic fathers of that eastern Tennessee center have smarted over John Gunther’s pronouncement that it was probably rthe ugliest city he had seen inside America. Whatever the demerits of the Knoxville skyline, its two Jest and newest structures in 1976 were the headquarters for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Deal-era agency that once made the city the Ie for any discussion of public ownership, resource management, or the success of F.D.R.’s deperssion-recovery program. No fewer than sixty-five of state, most of them from developing nations, have made a visit to TVA a necessary part of surveying America, and many have returned home to imitate the workings of the agency that TVA supporters now propose extending to a larger area of the United States to take on the energy crisis.

Though TVA’s national profile receded after it won the last of its major political survival battles in the 1950’s, its continuing work in the seven-state Tennessee River Valley area transformed it into the nation’s largest utility, the near single source of new ideas for chemical fertilizer development, and a growing fountain of suggestions on how to manage the nation’s resources without dragging the afterbirth of bureaucracy into all dealings with people as an accompaniment. At a time when electric bills nationally exceeded mortgage payments in some cases for the middle class, and welfare payments for some of the poor, TVA’s ability to produce power at rates 45 per cent below the national average made its virtues even more appealing.

Senator Adlai E. Stevenson of’Illinois introduced a bill in Congress to create a Federal Oil and Gas Corporation, based on the TVA organizational model, to compete with the oil industry in drilling on federal lands, inland and offshore, and selling oil and gas to refineries. Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and George McGovern of South Dakota, Lee White, a former chairman of the Federal Power Commission, Leonard Woodcock, president of the United Auto Workers, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, among others, supported the measure. Former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris suggested using TVA as a model in reforming private utilities. Seconding him were groups like the National Coalition for Land Reform, and consumer organizations in various parts of the country who were seeking relief from power prices.

Ironically, however, while national leaders were rediscovering TVA, grassroots elements across TVA’s 8o,ooo-square-mile area were revolting against it. Farmers, ratepayers, strip-mined land owners, coal suppliers, unions, and politicians in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, loaded down visiting reporters with reams of TVA critiques full of quotes honed for printing. The agency seemed almost under siege by this new brand of opposition, and so mystified by its volume that its historic proficiency at persuasion was replaced by dump loads of defensive press releases issued from its Knoxville headquarters. TVA is accustomed to battling. What was different in the mid-1970’s was that it was dueling not with outside power interests, but with its own people. TVA’s chief information officer, who commanded a public relations and technical information budget of $1.3 million, called the criticism “healthy,” and then sighed, “I hope.”

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt leaned back in his chair on May 18, 1933, and handed Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska the pen with which he had just signed the TVA act, he could not have guessed that he had just launched the most enduringly controversial program of the New Deal. It was true that the bill the President signed was the 138th that had been introduced in Congress since 1921 relating to the disposition of the Tennessee Valley. The new act resembled bills vetoed in 1928 by President Calvin Coolidge and in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover, but Roosevelt hoped that he had laid to rest national socialism and regional favoritism debates with the promise that TVA would be “a corporation clothed with the power of Government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise,” and concerned with the Tennessee River Valley but working “for the general social and economic welfare of the Nation.”

For all the comfort those words gave the private power interests, Roosevelt might as well have said that he was creating a socialist river-damming project that would be used to barge children to integrated schools and supply electric power to the Kremlin. Words like a “yardstick” by which true power costs could be judged, and multipurpose “planning,” were signals to the program’s opponents that what the liberal New York Democrat and Norris, the progressive Nebraska Republican, had in mind was more than another public relief program for the eroded hills and pocketbooks of the Southern mountaineer and his flatland neighbors who lived farther down the flood-prone Tennessee River.