Even before the new Congress was sworn in, electric cooperatives had already begun meeting with newly elected lawmakers to educate them about how co-ops work and the unique role they play in rural communities.

Co-ops, their statewide associations and NRECA have held more than 20 online meetings since December with a bipartisan mix of new senators and House members, and over a dozen more are being scheduled.

“We hit that sweet spot in December and early January when there was a good chance to get our foot in the door before the members’ schedules get packed,” said Shelby Hartley, NRECA’s manager of advocacy communications.

Nine new senators and about 70 new House members were sworn in on Jan. 3. Co-ops want to make sure that the freshman lawmakers realize that their constituents, as co-op consumer-members, own the utilities that provide their districts with electricity.

“These video calls have been a great way to introduce the co-ops to our newest members of Congress,” said Doug Snitgen, executive vice president of the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association, which recently hosted virtual meetings with two freshman Michigan Republicans, Reps. Peter Meijer and Lisa McClain.

“It's important that we help them understand who we are, how we serve our members, and what makes us different from other electric utilities long before we ever ask them to support one of our co-op issues.”

NRECA has provided co-ops with a condensed version of Co-op 101, a briefing that shows members of Congress how co-ops operate and how electricity is generated. The updated briefing, which can be localized, includes information about how co-ops have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how co-ops are leading the transition to beneficial electrification.

There is also information about the key role that many co-ops play in bringing broadband to rural communities—an issue that already seems to be hitting home with new lawmakers.

“Several new members have told us that broadband is the No. 1 issue they heard about on the campaign trail,” said Leann Paradise, a senior associate on NRECA’s grassroots advocacy team and a frequent participant with NRECA members in the Co-op 101 meetings. “One told us that, everywhere she went, it was the first thing that people brought up.”

Co-ops typically avoid lobbying new members of Congress about specific legislation during the Co-op 101 meetings, said Mike Knotts, vice president of government relations at the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. The association recently hosted a virtual meeting with new Rep. Diana Harshbarger, R-Tenn.

“I’m of the opinion that, in the first meeting, we should never ask for anything,” Knotts said. “We want to focus more on education than advocacy.”

Advocacy will come this spring, when co-ops interact with lawmakers as part of NRECA’s annual Legislative Conference, which will be held online April 19-23.

In the meantime, the Tennessee association invited Harshbarger to tour a co-op in her district, and her staff followed up to make the arrangements, Knotts said.

“The idea is to begin a long-term relationship,” he said.

Those relationships can be just as important with urban lawmakers as with rural members of Congress, said Bobby Hamill, an NRECA lobbyist who often makes Co-op 101 presentations to senators and representatives who have no co-ops in their districts. Those lawmakers can be crucial to passing legislation to help co-ops and their members, especially if they serve on key committees, he said.

“Some of our greatest co-op champions come from areas that don’t have a co-op at all,” Hamill said.

Listen to a recent Along Those Lines podcast episode on how co-ops are engaging with the new Congress and new administration: